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Victor Hugo and Tzaraat

04/21/2020 07:20:57 PM


Rabbi Weill

Dear Friends,

I recently read that when Victor Hugo wanted to learn how Les Miserables was selling, he telegraphed his publisher a message consisting only of this: ?.

His publisher knew exactly what Hugo wanted to know, so he replied just as tersely:  !

In other words, Les Miserables was selling well!

Interesting that Hugo, a man of many words refrained from using any words in his telegram.

We Jews know a thing or two about words. We immerse ourselves in them. We dwell in them. When we prepare to study Torah, we praise God for commanding us “la’asok b’divrei Torah” –  to be busy in words of Torah.

And we consider it a sin to misuse words. The Bible and rabbinic literature suggest that the misuse of word caused tzara’at, an affliction described in great detail in the book of Leviticus. Tzara’at was considered divine punishment for the sin of gossip and slander. In Hebrew this sin is known as lashon ha’ra, the evil tongue.

Our tradition has employed volumes of words trying to figure out how to rectify this moral failing. But it’s hard! How many of us are capable of never uttering unflattering remarks about others? Even the Chofetz Chaim, a studiously moral teacher of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, was at times full of self-reproach for his tendency to engage in lashon ha’ra.

This period of self-isolation provides us with an opportunity to take a break from using words for negative purposes. Just as pollution is decreasing as traffic decreases, perhaps gossip can decrease as gathering decreases.

Wouldn’t that be nice? Let us exploit this period of separation for good purpose. Let’s get into the habit now of speaking kindly about each other – and let’s not break that habit later on!

On another note, friends and family have been asking me how our congregation is doing during this time of separation and how we are faring on Zoom. I have a very simple answer: 

Hope to see you – on Zoom or in person – very soon.


Rabbi Jeffrey Weill

Tue, August 3 2021 25 Av 5781