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Wednesday
Jun202018

THE REDEMPTIVE POWER OF SPEECH

AARON’S PASSING AND SPEAKING TO A ROCK

Two of the main themes of this week’s parsha are the striking of the rock by Moses to produce water and the passing of Aaron.

According to Rashi, G-d faulted Moses for not speaking to the rock as he was instructed. Because Moses and Aaron did not sanctify G-d by demonstrating G-d’s power to produce water through mere speech, they were destined to die in the desert and not see the Promised Land.

The connection between these two themes is clear. Aaron’s passing was a direct result of Moses’ striking the rock instead of talking to it.

To understand Aaron’s role, we must also consider the fact that the Torah identifies Aaron’s day of passing as the first day of the fifth month (the month of Av). It is the only place where the Torah actually mentions the date of someone’s passing. Nowhere else in the Torah do we find mention of a Patriarch’s or Matriarch’s date of passing, or that of the 12 Tribes, Moses, Miriam or any of the other illustrious Biblical figures.

Why was it important to mention the date of Aaron’s passing?

CONNECTION TO AN EARLIER ROSH CHODESH AV

One may suggest that the Torah wishes to allude to another event that occurred on that very day, centuries earlier. When the Great Flood began to subside, the Torah (Genesis 8:5) relates that the mountains became visible on the first day of the tenth month:

“The waters constantly diminished until the tenth month. In the tenth, on the first of the month, the mountain peaks appeared.”

According to Rashi, this refers to the month of Av, which was the tenth month counting from the time the flood started. When the Torah describes Aaron’s passing as on the first of the fifth month, it is referring to the fifth month from Nissan, the month of the Exodus.

By emphasizing that Aaron’s passing occurred on the first of the month of Av, the Torah hints that Aaron’s passing had something to do with when the mountains became visible after the Flood.

A contemporary Chassidic work, Imrei Mordechai, shows that the connection between these two events is actually hinted in the text of the flood story. The initials of the Hebrew words, “…on the first of the month, the mountain peaks appeared,” spell l’aharon – concerning Aaron.

The appearance of the mountains on that day also alludes to Aaron’s passing, because he was buried on a double mountain. The Torah thus hints that the potential for Aaron’s passing and interment was set into motion on the first day of the month of Av in the Flood generation. His passing and burial depended on his reaction to the test of speaking to the rock in connection with water.

We now have to understand the thematic connection between these two events, Aaron’s passing and the flood waters receding. Other than the fact that both the flood and the striking of the rock involved water, how can we connect the flood with the striking of the rock, an event that happened over 800 years later?

PURIFICATION AND ATONEMENT

Imrei Mordechai shows just such a connection by referring to a 17th century work of Kabbalah, the Megaleh Amukos, that addresses the reason the Jewish people were destined to be slaves in Egypt.

According to the Megaleh Amukos, the Egyptian bondage atoned for two major societal sins: the immorality of the flood generation and the arrogance of the Tower of Babel generation. More specifically, Pharaoh’s order to drown the baby boys in the waters of the Nile was in atonement for the generation of the Flood, while the building of cities by the enslaved Hebrews was designed by G-d to atone for the generation that built the Tower of Babel.

We cannot fathom G-d’s ways and comprehend why the Jewish people had to atone for sins that they did not commit. However, as our Sages teach us, sin corrupts and defiles the entire world. At Sinai, G-d endowed the Jewish people with the power and mission to cleanse the world. Their suffering in Egypt, a prelude to the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, was a cathartic process that brought a measure of purification and refinement not only to themselves but also to the entire world.

THE PARADOX OF SUFFERING

To be sure, the above is not intended to justify anyone’s suffering in this world. While suffering can have positive effects, we are obligated to do everything in our power to mitigate the harmful effects. It is only after the fact that we can point to the way suffering has the capacity to remove negative energy throughout the world.

This indeed is the paradox of Galus. On the one hand, Galus is described as a refining process that prepares us for the time of Redemption. Conversely, the Talmud states that G-d “regrets” having created Galus. G-d has called on us to fight against the pain and suffering of Galus.

The following statement by the Previous Rebbe (whose holiday of liberation from Soviet imprisonment we will celebrate this week on the 12th and 13th of Tammuz) captures the paradoxical view of suffering:

The Rebbe remarked that for all the money in the world he would never ask for even one more minute of suffering in prison. But, for all the money in the world he would not give up even one minute of the suffering he endured.

IMMORAL BEHAVIOR ROOTED IN IMMORAL SPEECH

Even more specifically, Imrei Mordechai adds that the Flood generation was guilty of gross immorality in their illicit relationships. The Kabbalists teach us that moral and immoral behavior are connected to the purity and impurity of speech. People who contaminate their speech with foul and negative language open themselves up to foul and negative moral behavior.

This notion is alluded to in the dimensions of Noah’s Ark, 30x300x50 cubits. In Hebrew, these numbers are represented by the letters lamed (30), shin (300), and nun (50), that spell the word lashon-tongue. The way to start the process of purification is to work on the purity and positive quality of our language.

The connection between negative speech and exile is also hinted in the name Pharaoh, who is associated with the first exile. Pharaoh is a composite of two words, Peh Ra-evil tongue.

It is no surprise then that the Holiday of Liberation from Pharaoh’s exile is called Pesach, which, the Arizal stated, is a composite of two words, Peh sach, a mouth that speaks. While exile has the power to contaminate our power of speech, keeping us bound in exile, positive speech empowers us to get out of exile. Positive speech attacks and reverses Exile’s very cause.

THE LIBERATING POWER OF POSITIVE SPEECH

Why are negative and positive speech connected to exile and liberation, respectively?

Speech is what makes us human. In Torah literature, a human being is described as midaber-a speaker. Why aren’t we instead referred to by our intellect, which distinguishes us from other forms of existence?

Chassidus teaches us that speech represents our ability to break out of ourselves in order to communicate with others. When we remain silent, our mind and emotions are locked up within our own consciousness. They are “trapped” within us. Only when we communicate with others do our intellectual and emotional faculties leave their “confined space.”

Negative speech, however, derives from the base and most egotistical aspects of our personality. It blocks speech’s liberating power, reversing its salutary effects and keeping us in our own cocoon. When we are locked into our own world, our selfish and hedonistic impulses take over. We become slaves to every whim, desire and force, both internal and external.

The key to liberation from immorality, thus, is to engage in positive speech, such as words of prayer, Torah, praise of G-d and others.

To be sure, positive thinking is also crucial for having a positive and liberating way of life. However, speech contains the most dynamic liberating power.

NOW IS THE TIME FOR POSITIVE TALK

We can now understand the connection between the Flood and Moses’ striking of the rock.

But first we have to understand why G-d asked Moses to speak to the rock in the first place. Why was speaking to the rock so crucial at this juncture? After all, as the Torah recounts, in an earlier period, soon after the Exodus, G-d instructed Moses to strike a rock to produce water. Why did G-d now ask for him to change tactics and speak to the rock?

One may answer that the Jewish people were now standing on the threshold of the Promised Land. This event occurred after all the Jews who left Egypt, and who did not want to cross over into the Promised Land, had perished in the desert. Throughout their travels in the desert, the Jewish people relapsed into their enslaved mindset and used their power of speech to complain about the lack of meat, slander the Land of Israel, slander Moses, etc. They lacked the requisite sophisticated dimension of speech to fully extricate themselves from their ties to Egypt.

Now, as the new generation was about to enter the Promised Land, a Holy Land that would not tolerate the contaminating and corrupting power of negative language, it was crucial that they take the final step in expunging all traces of exile-tainted speech.

Moreover, while going out of exile requires understanding the damaging and debilitating nature of negative speech, the source of exile, entering into the state of Geula requires that we focus on the beneficial nature of positive speech.

G-d deemed it important that Moses demonstrate the power of positive speech to the generation of the Promised Land. If Moses and Aaron had done so it would have eradicated the stain of the Flood generation, and the Final Redemption would have become a reality then.

The lesson for our generation is that, as we are poised to enter into the Final Redemption, we must renew our efforts to focus on positive, redemptive language.

There is no more positive language than the language of prayer and Torah, particularly through a heartfelt request for, and the recital of Torah teachings about, the Redemption.

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