Sticks and stones…

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Emor: Leviticus 21:1-24:3

"Speak (emor) unto the priests, the sons of Aaron:" (Leviticus 21:1)

By way of an introduction: To update the old adage, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can really hurt me!"

The world was created, we learn, through speech: "And G!d said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light." It wasn’t the Eternal One thinking about it, or wishing for it, or anything else: it was the act of speech that brought this world and all its diverse splendor into being.

It truly is no coincidence that in Hebrew, d’var has two meanings: "word" and "thing." In short, words are real. And how do we bring words into being? By speaking: amar.

In order to understand this midrash, it helps to know a few things. First of all, the information that is about to be communicated to the priests concerns the way in which the priests are supposed to conduct themselves in regards to death: they are not to remove themselves from a holy state and place themselves in a grieving state unless the deceased are their closest of kin. The word for this state of being removed from holiness is tamay – a fairly negative term in Hebrew.

It also should be remembered that, in the "rules" by which we interpret Torah – the hermeneutic principles – no word is extraneous: two words will never be used when one will do. Therefore, if something does seem extraneous, there must be a reason for it.

With that in mind, let’s see what the midrash wrestles with, and what an important lesson emerges from what might appear to be dry hermeneutics! Listen:

R. Tanhum son of R. Hannilai opened his discourse with the text, "The words of (imroth) the Lord are pure words (amaroth)."  (Ps. 12:7). Does this mean that only ‘The words of the Lord are pure words’ and the words of mortals are not pure words? …

‘Pure words.’ R. Judan in the name of R. Johanan, R. Berekiah in the name of R. Eleazar, and R. Jacob of Kefar Hanin, all of whom cited R. Joshua b. Levi, said: We find that the Holy One, blessed be He, used a circumlocution of eight letters so as not to let an unseemly word come out of His mouth; as it says, Of every clean beast… and of the beasts that are not clean (Gen. 7:2). In another passage He made a circumlocution of two or three words in the Torah so as not to allow an unclean word to issue from His mouth. Thus it is written, ‘And of the beasts that are not clean.’  It does not say, ‘the unclean,’ but ‘That are not clean.’ R. Judan b. Manasseh said: Even when He comes to introduce to them the marks of the unclean beast, He only begins with cleanness. Thus, it is not written, ‘The camel, because he parteth not the hoof,’ but Because he cheweth the cud  (Lev. 11:4). It does not say, ‘The rock-badger, because he parteth not the hoof,’ but Because he cheweth the cud  (ib.), and it is the same with the hare and the same with the swine.

Midrash Rabbah – Leviticus XXVI:1

Let’s begin with the basics, the p’shat:  the main paragraph is telling us that in Genesis 7:2, rather than uttering the negative term "tamay,"  or unclean, G!d says "not clean," which requires eight more letters than unclean. Likewise, rather than highlight a deficit of an animal (the hoof not being parted), the Torah draws attention to an attribute – the fact that they chew a cud. This would seem to violate our principle of parsimony: why use these extraneous letters and words?

At first blush, there is an elegant hypothesis: G!d only speaks in "pure" words – i.e., those which are good, or clean, or sweet. And so, it would seem, G!d "spends" the extra letters in order to frame things positively.

The problem is that the same verse in Torah has G!d telling Moses to say the word "tamay!"  If the hypothesis were correct, then a similar "word dodge" would have been used there!

The first part of the midrash takes the next step in attempting to resolve the dilemma: perhaps G!d only speaks "pure" words directly, and it is only between people that "impure" words are used. Well, that may be so, but with what lesson are we left?

Words create reality. We know this in its crassest sense from the celebrity gossip magazines and big-media politics. Any claim made loudly and/or often enough acquires its own reality, no matter what the truth may be. As do words spoken softly, whispered between friends: "Did you hear…?" These are obvious problems, cases of lashon haRa – evil speech.

There are, however, far more subtle forms of evil speech that trap us completely unawares. Consider these two statements: "She has a strange accent – I can barely understand her!" and "She has a strange accent – it’s so exotic!" Which person do you want to meet first?

We are tuned, biologically, to notice differences. How we appreciate those differences – as opportunities for discovery or dangers from which to retreat – plays a critical role in determining the shape and flavor of the world we live in. The amount of light in our world is directly proportional to the amount of light we allow ourselves to see – and speak about.

Judaism takes us one step further. You see, Judaism conceives the world as having states – pure and impure, kosher and treif, Shabbat and weekday – between which we move back and forth. Judaism also gives us the rituals – the keys for the transitions – so that what is impure one moment can become pure the next.

Most significantly, it teaches us that the most fundamental of those states – that of being either stranger or member – is something we know from both sides, and we must always be working to welcome the stranger, for we "were once strangers in the land of Egypt." We must recognize, and then welcome, the stranger, whether it be someone we don’t know, or someone we think we know, but have cast downward in our gaze because of words we heard – or used ourselves.

May we all be blessed with recognizing the opportunity to fulfill the mitzvah  of welcoming the stranger into our hearts, our minds, and our lives.

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