Who Wants Life?
“This will be the law of the metzora on the day of his purification, he will be brought to the Kohen” (Vayikra 14:2).
The wording of the passuk brings home the message that forbidden gossip is the cause of the metzora’s affliction; it speaks specifically of the purification “of the metzora (the one afflicted with tzaraas),” rather than purification from tzaraas (the illness), or from the nega (the discoloration which was the sign of tzaraas). Chazal tell us that the word “metzora” is an acronym for “motzi shem ra,” giving another party a bad name, or in other words, slandering him.
They explain this passuk with the story of a peddler making the rounds of the towns near Tzippori in the Galil. He hawked his wares, calling out, “Who wants a life-giving elixir?” An interested crowd gathered around the peddler. When Rabbi Yannai, learning in his room, heard him, he asked him to come in and sell him some of his merchandise. The peddler told him, “You don’t need it – it’s not for people like you.”
Rabbi Yannai insisted, and the peddler produced a rather surprising remedy: he pulled out not a flask of medicine, but a copy of Tehillim, and showed Rabbi Yannai two pessukim: “Who is the man who wants life…. Guard your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit. Depart from bad, and do good” (Tehillim 34:13-15).
Rabbi Yannai commented, “I recited that passuk [in Tehillim] my whole lifeand I did not know what it meant, until this peddler came along and told me, ‘Who is the man who wants life?’” The Midrash concludes, “This is why Moshe warned the Jewish people, telling them, ‘This is the law of the metzora – the law of one who is motzi shem ra (slanders)’” (Vayikra Rabbah 16:2).
Rabbi Yannai’s reaction is surprising. What had he actually learned from the peddler? He had not offered any new insights or explanations – he merely showed Rabbi Yannai a familiar passuk in Tehillim. What had the peddler taught him that he did not already know?
Rav Moshe Sternbuch suggests that until then, Rabbi Yannai had only known of one way to refrain from lashon hara, and it was not easy: eliminating the temptation to gossip by avoiding the company of others, similar to the metzora who was distanced from the camp. The peddler showed Rabbi Yannai that there was another solution. The pessukim in Tehillim continue, “depart from bad and do good, seek out peace and pursue it.” This means not only keeping away from bad, but also actively doing good. If we learn and teach Torah and are involved in mitzvos,we will be able to resist lashon hara (Taam V’Daas, Metzora, p. 78).
Rav Yissocher Frand cites an answer from the Shemen HaTov: the insight was not so much the simple meaning of the passuk, but the fact that of all people, it was a peddler who taught it. A peddler is hardly a recluse – his business is built on interaction with others, including a great deal of talking and socializing. The Torah associates the Hebrew word rochel (peddler) with rechilus, gossip (Vayikra 19:16; Chafetz Chaim, Lavin 1). Developing contacts along the route and a rapport with the customers is integral to the peddler’s profession. Rabbi Yannai learned that if a peddler, who talks constantly, can refrain from lashon hara, anyone can.
Many generations later, the Chafetz Chaim exemplified this approach. Rabbi Berel Wein relates that his father-in-law, Rabbi Leizer Levine, grew up in the home of the Chafetz Chaim. Rabbi Levine recalled that the Chafetz Chaim was scrupulously careful to avoid lashon hara, but that did not mean that he never spoke. On the contrary, he dealt with people and was always talking – yet no matter how much he talked, he steered clear of any lashon hara (Rabbi Yissocher Frand, “The Peddler’s Lesson: Listen to Your Messages”).
Question for Discussion:
Think back to an occasion when you conversed with someone who started speaking lashon hara. How did you handle the situation? For example, did you listen, ask the speaker to stop, change the subject, or attempt some other solution?Click Here To Respond