This week’s Torah portion describes the procedures that must be taken to cleanse the gossiper inflicted with tzoraat. He is sprinkled with the blood of a bird. The bird offerings, our Sages explain, allude to the leper’s evil speech. “Like birds which twitter constantly with chirping sounds,” this individual was unable to control his tongue.
Indeed, speech is immensely powerful. As King Shlomo states, “life and death are in the power of the tongue.” The Torah describes God as creating the Universe through speech as speech is perhaps the best metaphor for God’s act of creation. The spoken word is both entirely non-physical and ethereal yet, at the same time, it has the capacity to command, control, shape, and build. In those mysterious first moments of man;s creation, God breathed the soul of life into him, making him into a “speaking animal” (Onkeles; Rashi). Intelligent speech is what defines us as human beings. All human civilisations start with verbal communication, with one human being opening his mouth to reach out to another, slowly forming a group. Speech creates cultures and ideologies. As King Shlomo discerned, it can create or destroy the world.
It was precisely through speech that Pharaoh was able to begin his brutal persecution of the Jewish People. Initially, he convened a council and gave a charismatic speech:
“He said to his people, “Behold, the Children of Israel are more numerous and stronger than we are. Get ready, let us act cunningly with them, lest they increase, and a war befall us and they join our enemies, wage war against us and expel us from the land” (Shemot, 1:9-10).
Using his words to create an “us” and a “them,” Pharaoh began to demark and discriminate against the Jewish People. He spread false rumours against these immigrant people, living peacefully and productively as shepherds in his land, that they were a dangerous fifth column, set out to undermine his kingdom. His words slowly created an ideology and a culture of hate, beginning to destroy the world. He continued this propaganda until he convinced the Egyptian nation to hunt down and drown young infants in the Nile and to subjugate Jewish men and women, “them,” into back-breaking labour (R’ Dovid Soloveitchik, Parshat Shemot). It is for this reason that the Haggadah considers the Egyptian persecution to be synonymous with Pharaoh’s very first antisemitic speech, as we recite in Maggid:
“‘The Egyptians treated us badly,'” as it is said: ‘Come, let us act cunningly with them…'”
This power of speech is not lost on us. Our cries and shouts of despair are what stirred divine mercy to come to our rescue in Egypt. Furthermore, speech is the primary means through which we preserve the story of our ancient suffering at the hands of Pharaoh, reciting the Shema twice daily and spending Seder Night talking to a table full of listeners, “telling our children that on this day, we left Egypt.”
Unlike Pharoah, on Seder Night, we use our speech to express our gratitude to God for our freedom (which, according to some, is the primary purpose of Seder Night), and to educate our youth of our history and values. This speech, like the chatter of birds, has endured far longer than the gossip against us, creating a Jewish culture and ideology of which we are so proud.