Watch What You Say

Yael Eckstein  |  April 4, 2022

Yael Eckstein delivers food box to elderly woman in FSU

The priest shall order that two live clean birds and some cedar wood, scarlet yarn and hyssop be brought for the person to be cleansed. — Leviticus 14:4

Each week in synagogue, Jews read through the Torah from Genesis to Deuteronomy. The Torah portion for this week is Metzora, which means “diseased,” from Leviticus 14:1-15:33.

There is a story from the Midrash — an ancient collection of teachings from the Jewish sages — that I want to share with you that helps explain this interesting remedy for someone afflicted with a skin disease.

The story goes that a spice peddler was walking through the market, calling out “Who wants the elixir of life!? Who wants the elixir of life?!” A large crowd gathered around him. “We want the elixir of life!” they said. Rabbi Yanai was in his study nearby and heard the peddler’s offer of “elixir of life.”

He approached the peddler and said to him, “Show me this elixir of life you are selling.” The peddler took out a Book of Psalms and showed Rabbi Yanai the verse, “Whoever of you loves life and desires to see many good days, keep your tongue from evil and your lips from telling lies” (Psalm 34:12-13).

“You see?” said the peddler, who was actually no peddler at all. “If you watch what you say, you will have many good days.” Rabbi Yanai smiled and answered, “We see the same teaching in Proverbs, where it is written, ‘Those who guard their mouths and their tongues keep themselves from calamity’” (Proverbs 21:23).

Watch What You Say

In this week’s Torah portion, we read about the purification process of someone afflicted with the skin disease, tzara’at. The Jewish sages taught that this ailment was a divine punishment for gossip, slander, and other careless and harmful speech.

Part of the purification process involved two birds, one to be slaughtered and one that was set free. According to Jewish tradition, God designated birds as part of the process because they are creatures that constantly chirp and chatter. The birds represent the power of speech, which the afflicted person misused, causing the tzara’at in the first place.

But why did the priest command that two birds should be brought and not just one? And why was one set free?

The sages explained that the sacrificed bird symbolized negative speech and the necessity to obliterate it from our lives. The second bird represented positive speech and was set free to demonstrate that positive words should flow freely from our mouths. 

It’s not enough to refrain from saying hurtful things. We have a responsibility to use our God-given gift of speech to watch what we say and bring goodness to the world. And, as we see from our story in the Midrash, watching and guarding our speech is truly the path to a good life!

Your Turn:

Think about your words this week. How can you use your gift of speech to encourage someone? How can you avoid negative speech, such as gossip or using hurtful words?