by Eli Touger

Adapted from
Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XXVII, p. 159ff;
Sefer HaSichos 5750, p. 443ff

What Happens When a Wise Man Talks

The Rambam writes:1 “Just as a wise man can be recognized through his wisdom and his character traits, for in these he stands apart from the rest of the people, so too, he should be recognized in his conduct.”

The Rambam’s intent is that the Jewish approach to knowledge must be more than theoretical. Instead, a person’s knowledge must shape his character, and more importantly, influence his behavior. This is what distinguishes him as wise.

Among the types of conduct mentioned by the Rambam as appropriate for a wise man is refined speech, as he continues:2 “A Torah scholar should not shout or shriek while speaking…. Instead, he should speak gently to all people…. He should judge all men in a favorable light, speaking his colleague’s praise, and never mentioning anything that is shameful to him.”

The wording employed by the Rambam “judging… in a favorable light” and “never mentioning anything that is shameful” imply that a Torah scholar may recognize faults within a colleague’s character. Even so, he will “speak his colleague’s praise.” When speaking to his colleague privately, he may patiently and gently rebuke him for his conduct.3 But when speaking to others and when viewing his colleague in his own mind he will think and speak favorably of him.

This is not only a reflection of the scholar’s own refinement. By continually highlighting the other person’s positive qualities, he actually encourages their expression. For thought and speech can bring about appreciable changes within our world. For this reason,, the Maggid of Mezeritch would at times recite concepts which he knew his listeners could not understand. His intent was to “draw the idea into our world,” so it would be possible for it to be comprehended by others later.4

To cite a similar concept in the realm of human relations: Our Sages state5 that lashon hora (malicious gossip)6 kills three people: the one who speaks it, the one who listens, and the one about whom it is spoken. We can understand why such conversation affects the one who speaks and the one who listens both are party to a sin which our Sages consider7 equivalent to the combined effects of idol worship, murder, and adultery. But why should the person about whom the gossip was spoken be affected? He did not take part in the transgression!

In resolution, it can be explained that speaking about a person’s negative qualities spurs their expression. Although the person might not even be aware that he is being spoken about, the fact that his character faults are being discussed fans the revelation of these qualities. Had these faults not been spoken about, there is a greater probability that they would have remained hidden.

“Positive attributes are more powerful than the attributes of retribution,”8 and similar concepts apply with regard to speaking about a person’s positive character traits. The consistent mention of the good a person possesses and within every individual there are unfathomed reservoirs of good will facilitate the expression of that good in the person’s conduct.

A Command to Speak

The above concepts relate to our Torah reading, which is called Emor. Emor is a command, telling one to speak. In the context of the Torah reading, this command has an immediate application: to communicate laws pertaining to the priesthood. Nevertheless, the fact that this term is used as the name of the reading indicates a wider significance: A person must speak.9

And yet, we find our Sages counseling: “Say little,”10 and “I… didnot find anything better for one’s person than silence,”11 implying that excessive speech is not desirable. Nor can we say that the charge emor refers to the commandment to speak words of Torah, for there is an explicit command,12 “And you shall speak of them,” encouraging us to proliferate the Torah’s words. Instead, emor refers to speaking about a colleague’s virtues, as explained above.13

Learning With Light

Our Sages14 associate the command emor with the obligation of chinuch, the education of children, commenting:

[It is written:]15 “Speak” and [it is written,] “tell them.” [Why the redundancy in the same verse?] To adjure the adults concerning the children….

Lihazhir, the Hebrew word translated as “to adjure,” shares the same root as the word zohar, meaning “radiance.” This teaches a fundamental lesson with regard to education; it must be characterized by radiant light. In general, there are two ways to persuade children to reject undesirable behavior: to emphasize how base it is, or to show the positive alternative. Lihazhir underscores the importance of spreading light, for “a little light repels much darkness,”16 and by shining light, one will kindle the inner light which every person possesses.17

As Light Kindles Light

There is a deeper dimension to the above concept. In a complete sense, the chinuch of one’s children and by extension, everyone whom one influences18 should not be viewed as an obligation beyond one’s own Divine service another task to be accomplished but rather as a natural outgrowth of that service.

When a person’s Divine service reaches a consummate peak, and in keeping with the thrust of ahavas Yisrael and achdus Yisrael (the love and unity of the Jewish people), he joins together with others, his contact with them will foster their personal growth. The light that shines forth from his conduct will illuminate and educate all those with whom he comes in contact.

And this kindling of light by light will lead to the era in which “the wise will shine as the splendor of the firmament,”19 and “Israel… will leave their exile with mercy.”20

1. Mishneh Torah, Hilchos De’os 5:1.
2. Ibid.: 7.
3. See ibid., 6:7.
4. Maamarei Admur HaZakein HaKetzarim, p. 464. See also Keser Shem Tov, sec. 256.
5. Vayikra Rabbah 26:2. See also Erchin 15b; Hilchos De’os 7:3.
6. This is the exact opposite of the subject mentioned previously, speaking positively about a colleague despite the fact that he possesses faults. For as emphasized by Hilchos De’os 7:2, lashon hora does not refer to inventing lies that transgression is referred to as motzi shem ra. Lashon hora refers to making deprecating statements about another, even if they are true.
7. Erchin, loc. cit., Hilchos De’os 7:3.
8. Sotah 11a.

The connection of the Torah reading to proper speech is also emphasized by its conclusion the narrative of the blasphemer, which provides an example of the opposite approach. See Vayikra 24:11ff and commentaries.Parshas Emor mentions the Counting of the Omer, and is always read during this period of the year. The Counting of the Omer also shares a connection to proper speech, for this period is marked by certain customs of mourning over the death of Rabbi Akiva’s students (Shulchan Aruch HaRav 493:1). As the Maharsha (in his Chiddushei Aggados to Yevamos 62b) states, the spiritual source for the plague which killed Rabbi Akiva’s students was their inability to respect each other, and the lashon hora which they would speak.

10. Pirkei Avos 1:16.
11. Ibid.: 17.
12. Deuteronomy 6:7.
13. The importance of speech is also expressed by the Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 26:1, commenting on the opening verse of our Torah reading) which focuses on the difference between G-d’s speech, which brings existence into being, and ordinary human speech, which has no lasting effect in this world. Nevertheless, since “the righteous resemble their Creator” (Bereishis Rabbah 67:8), even mortal speech can effect change, as explained above.
14. Yevamos 114a, quoted by Rashi in his commentary to Leviticus 24:1.
15. Leviticus, ibid.
16. Tanya, ch. 12.
17. This approach is also emphasized by the word emor itself. The word dabber also means “speak,” but it is associated with harsh tones (Makkos 11a; Sifri and Rashi, commenting on Numbers 12:1). Emor, by contrast, is associated with gentle words (Mechilta and Rashi, commenting on Exodus 19:3; Sifri and Rashi, commenting on Numbers, loc. cit.), an approach of giving.
18. For students are also referred to as children (Sifri, Vaes’chanan 6:7).
19. Daniel 12:3.
20. Raya Mehemna, Zohar III, 124b-125a. This teaching explains that the Redemption will come in the merit of “this book of yours [i.e., of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai], the Zohar, the Book of Radiance.” Significantly, Lag BaOmer, the yahrzeit of Rabbi Shimon, is usually celebrated in the week before or the week after the reading of Parshas Emor.
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