Thursday, April 02, 2009

Speaking of Great Things

This is a rewrite of a piece that I posted last year. It still doesn't feel finished but I wanted to share it anyway.

שִׁמְעוּ, כִּי-נְגִידִים אֲדַבֵּר; וּמִפְתַּח שְׂפָתַי, מֵישָׁרִים. (משלי ח:ו)

Listen, for I will speak noble things, and the opening of my lips shall be right things. (Mishlei 8:6)


Our Rabbis tell us that we must tell the story of Pesach in a peculiar manner:

וְצָרִיךְ לְהַתְחִיל בִּגְנוּת, וּלְסַיַּם בִּשְׁבָח.
It is necessary to begin with denigration and end with praise.

What is the purpose of this halakha? I believe the answer can be found through an analysis of the laws of the prohibition of lashon hara, slanderous speech.


Concerning the ba'al lashon hara, the slanderer, David HaMelekh writes in Tehillim 12:


ד יַכְרֵת יְהוָה, כָּל-שִׂפְתֵי חֲלָקוֹת-- לָשׁוֹן, מְדַבֶּרֶת גְּדֹלוֹת.
ה אֲשֶׁר אָמְרוּ, לִלְשֹׁנֵנוּ נַגְבִּיר--שְׂפָתֵינוּ אִתָּנוּ: מִי אָדוֹן לָנוּ.
4. May God cut off all smooth lips, the tongue that speaks great things.
5. Who said, "With our tongue we will overpower; our lips are with us. Who is lord over us?"


The ba'al lashon hara is dangerous because he thinks that he speaks of 'great things'. He seeks to gain power and prominence by denigrating his fellow. He raises himself up by bringing others down. If only he recognized the true majesty and dominion of God he would not be so glib and unconstrained. Then he would realize that the very idea of seeking power is delusional - all the more so through slander! This is why the Rabbis say that the one who speaks lashon hara is, "כְּאִלּוּ כָּפַר בָּעִיקָר", as if he denies the most fundamental principle of the Torah: God's existence.


Oddly enough, lashon hara, slanderous speech, bears striking similarities to the mitzva of Sippur Y'tziat Mitzrayim, telling the story of the Exodus. First of all, lashon hara is also referred to as a kind of sippur, story telling. The purpose of Sippur Y'tziat Mitzrayim is knowledge of God (Sh'mot 10):


א וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, בֹּא אֶל-פַּרְעֹה: כִּי-אֲנִי הִכְבַּדְתִּי אֶת-לִבּוֹ, וְאֶת-לֵב עֲבָדָיו, לְמַעַן שִׁתִי אֹתֹתַי אֵלֶּה, בְּקִרְבּוֹ. ב וּלְמַעַן תְּסַפֵּר בְּאָזְנֵי בִנְךָ וּבֶן-בִּנְךָ, אֵת אֲשֶׁר הִתְעַלַּלְתִּי בְּמִצְרַיִם, וְאֶת-אֹתֹתַי, אֲשֶׁר-שַׂמְתִּי בָם; וִידַעְתֶּם, כִּי-אֲנִי יְהוָה.
1 God said to Moses, 'Come to Pharaoh, for I have made heavy his heart and the heart of his servants, in order that I would be able to place these, My signs in his midst. 2 And in order that you tell it in the ears of your children and grandchildren how I made a mockery out of Egypt, and My signs that I placed on them. And you will know that I am God.'


The purpose of the the m'sapeir (teller of) lashon hara is clearly not so lofty. The m'sapeir lashon hara also speaks of what he thinks are wondrous and great things as Rambam writes at the end of Hilkhot Tumat Tzara'at in which he discusses the root cause of tzara'at: lashon hara:

קַל וְחֹמֶר לִבְנֵי אָדָם הָרְשָׁעִים הַטִּפְּשִׁים, שֶׁמַּרְבִּים לְדַבַּר גְּדוֹלוֹת וְנִפְלָאוֹת; לְפִיכָּךְ רָאוּי לְמִי שֶׁרָצָה לְכַוַּן אֳרָחָיו, לְהִתְרַחַק מִיְּשִׁיבָתָן וּמִלְּדַבַּר עִמָּהֶן, כְּדֵי שֶׁלֹּא יִתָּפֵס אָדָם, בְּרֶשֶׁת רְשָׁעִים וְסִכְלוּתָם.
[Miriam was afflicted with tzaraat for saying a very limited form of lashon hara against her brother Moshe...] All the more so, evil, foolish people who say great and wondrous things at length; therefore it is proper for one who wants to properly align his path to distance himself from their dwelling places and from speaking with them so that he will not get caught up with them, in the web of the evil and their foolishness.


While the m'sapeir lashon hara in his foolishness speaks at length about what he considers to be great and wondrous, the m'sapeir b'y'tziat Mitzrayim is commanded to speak at length of the truly wondrous and truly great deeds of the Almighty (Hilkhot Chametz uMatza chapter 7):

מִצְוַת עֲשֵׂה שֶׁלַּתּוֹרָה לְסַפַּר בְּנִסִּים וְנִפְלָאוֹת שֶׁנַּעֲשׂוּ לַאֲבוֹתֵינוּ בְּמִצְרַיִם
It is a positive commandment from the Torah to tell of the miracles and wonders that were done for our forefathers in Egypt.
כָל הַמַּאֲרִיךְ בַּדְּבָרִים שֶׁאֵרְעוּ וְשֶׁהָיוּ, הֲרֵי זֶה מְשֻׁבָּח.
Anyone who expands upon the matters that happened and that were - this is praiseworthy.


Now, let us return to our original question. The halakha says one must tell the story of y'tziat Mitzrayim (Hilkhot Chametz uMatza, chapter 7) in the following manner:

וְצָרִיךְ לְהַתְחִיל בִּגְנוּת, וּלְסַיַּם בִּשְׁבָח.
It is necessary to begin with denigration and end with praise.


The halakha demands that we do this in two ways:

כֵּיצַד: מַתְחִיל וּמְסַפֵּר שֶׁבַּתְּחִלָּה הָיוּ אֲבוֹתֵינוּ בִּימֵי תֶּרַח וּמִלְּפָנָיו, כּוֹפְרִים וְטוֹעִין אַחֲרֵי הַהֶבֶל וְרוֹדְפִין עֲבוֹדָה זָרָה; וּמְסַיֵּם בְּדַת הָאֱמֶת, שֶׁקֵּרְבָנוּ הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא לָהּ, וְהִבְדִּילָנוּ מִן הַתּוֹעִים, וְקֵרְבָנוּ לְיֵחוּדוֹ. וְכֵן מַתְחִיל וּמוֹדִיעַ שֶׁעֲבָדִים הָיִינוּ לְפַרְעֹה בְּמִצְרַיִם, וְכָל הָרָעָה שֶׁגְּמָלוּנוּ; וּמְסַיֵּם בְּנִסִּים וְנִפְלָאוֹת שֶׁנַּעֲשׂוּ לָנוּ, וּבְחֵרוּתֵנוּ.
How [does one begin with denigration and end with praise]? Begin and tell that originally our forefathers in the days of Terach and before him were heretics and were swayed after vanity and chased after idolatry; and conclude with the true religion - that the Holy One Blessed is He brought us close to Him and separated us from the wayward and brought us close to His Unity.
And also, begin and inform that we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and all the evil he caused us; and conclude with the miracles and wonders that were done for us and with our freedom.


What greater denigration can there be than being slaves and idolaters! As we know, the slanderer also denigrates, however, for him that is where it ends (Hilkhot Deot, chapter 7):

יֵשׁ עָווֹן גָּדוֹל מִזֶּה עַד מְאוֹד וְהוּא בִּכְלַל לָאו זֶה, וְהוּא לָשׁוֹן הָרַע; וְהוּא הַמְּסַפֵּר בִּגְנוּת חֲבֵרוֹ, אַף עַל פִּי שֶׁאָמַר אֱמֶת.
There is an much greater sin than this [gossiping] … : lashon hara, slanderous speech. It is [defined as] one who tells/relates the scorn of his fellow, even if he says the truth.


In contrast, speaking of the B'nei Yisrael's degradation is a means to recognizing and praising God (Tehillim 113):


ז מְקִימִי מֵעָפָר דָּל; מֵאַשְׁפֹּת, יָרִים אֶבְיוֹן.
ח לְהוֹשִׁיבִי עִם-נְדִיבִים; עִם, נְדִיבֵי עַמּוֹ.
ט מוֹשִׁיבִי, עֲקֶרֶת הַבַּיִת-- אֵם-הַבָּנִים שְׂמֵחָה:
הַלְלוּ-יָהּ.
7. He lifts the pauper up from the dust, from the dungheap He raises up the needy,
8. To seat [him] with princes, with the princes of His people.
9. He seats the barren woman of the house as a happy mother of children. Hallelujah!


We must tell the story in this manner because we only come to recognize God's greatness by recognizing our own frailty. On the night of Pesach we do not regale our family and friends with stories of the heroic deeds of our ancestors. Moshe's name does not even appear in the haggadah! We begin by recounting the scorn of our forefathers and end with the praises of the Holy One, blessed is He.

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