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LIP SERVICE

by Rabbi David Zauderer    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

The period which we are now in on the Jewish calendar is known as the "Three Weeks." This period will come to an end this Thursday on the saddest day in the Jewish calendar, Tishah B'Av.

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The period which we are now in on the Jewish calendar is known as the "Three Weeks." This period will come to an end this Thursday on the saddest day in the Jewish calendar, Tishah B'Av.

This is a period of national mourning for the Jewish people, as many terribly tragic events in our history occurred during this time. Moses broke the Ten Commandments, the walls of the city of Jerusalem were breached, both the first and second Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed, the wicked king Apustomus burned the holy Torah, the Spanish Inquisition began, and the list goes on and on. Ultimately, the reason why we were exiled and dispersed among the nations only to be persecuted and tortured for the last 1800 years, is a direct result of the Romans destroying the Temple and expelling all of the Jewish people from the land of Israel during this period in the year 70 C.E.

The Talmud (Tractate Gittin) discusses the reasons why G-d allowed the Romans to destroy the second Temple and to exile His people. The following story is related: There was a man who threw a big party in a posh Jerusalem hotel, and asked the party coordinator to invite his best friend Kamtza. The coordinator didn't hear correctly, and mistakenly invited the man's worst enemy, Bar Kamtza. When the host saw his worst enemy sitting there at the party, he told him to leave. Well, Bar Kamtza didn't want to be publicly humiliated, so he asked if he could stay and offered to pay for whatever food he ate. The host refused the offer and demanded that Bar Kamtza leave immediately, this time in a louder voice. Bar Kamtza then offered to pay for half the expenses, and then for the entire cost of the party, just so that he shouldn't be embarrassed publicly - but to no avail. The host took Bar Kamtza by his ear, and threw him out of the ballroom.

Well, you can imagine Bar Kamtza's anger and shame. So what did he do? He decided to take revenge on all his fellow Jews who were sitting at the party and had said nothing to stop the host from humiliating him in public. Bar Kamtza went to the Roman emperor and informed him that the Jews were rebelling against him. To prove this, he told the emperor that the Jews wouldn't even accept a sacrifice that was offered to them by the emperor. The emperor was curious to see if this was true, so he sent an animal offering along with the Jew, Bar Kamtza, to be brought on the altar in the Temple. Along the way, Bar Kamtza made a blemish on the lip of the animal in a place where, according to Torah law, the animal is considered unfit to be brought as an offering. When the sages received this offering, they were in a quandary as to whether or not they should sacrifice this blemished animal. In the end, they decided against it. When the Roman emperor heard this, he realized that Bar Kamtza was right about the Jewish rebellion against him, and he proceeded to enter Jerusalem, burn down the Temple, and exile the Jews to the four corners of the globe All this because two Jews in the same neighborhood couldn't get along with each other.

The Talmud writes that one of the reasons why we were exiled and lost everything that we once had, is because of this "baseless hatred" between our own people. The Talmud also states that the Messiah will come and return us to our former glory only after we rectify this horrible infighting and learn to love each other like family should.

But it goes much deeper than that. If you'll examine the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza carefully, you will see that, ultimately, the root of all the trouble was the abuse of that greatest of gifts that G-d gave us - the power of speech. The host publicly shames Bar Kamtza, Bar Kamtza informs on the Jewish people - all abuses of the power of speech.

The Maharal of Prague, one of the great Torah sages and Kabbalists of the 16th century, explains the deeper meaning of the blemish on the lip of the emperor's offering. He says that there is a fundamental difference between the Jews and the gentiles. We are the people of the Torah, and our strength is in our voices - voices of Torah study and prayer. We were asked by Hashem to elevate our power of speech and the spoken word, by using our voices for great and holy things.

Our power of speech is so great in G-d's eyes, that he even granted us the power to create binding prohibitions upon ourselves in the form of vows. In last week's Torah portion, G-d writes that if a Jew should vow with his mouth to abstain from a certain food or object, there is thus created upon him a biblical commandment not to break that vow! Words mean a lot to us, and we don't take them lightly.

That's why the Jews are held to a higher standard with regard to the use and abuse of our speech. The gentiles are not enjoined to elevate their power of speech to that level. Therefore, says the Maharal, they don't see a blemish on the lip of an animal as a significant blemish. After all, it's only on its mouth, it's only words - words don't really mean anything! But the Jew sees the mouth as the Holy of Holies. We can actually create biblical prohibitions just with our words alone. And we can also destroy families, friends, even entire nations with the power of words alone. So a blemish on the lip is quite a significant blemish, and renders the animal unfit to bring in front of G-d.

This is the powerful message of the period known as the "Three Weeks." We are in exile (yes, even in the U.S.A. we are in exile - we still have Farrakhans, drive-by shootings from white upremacists, and a whole host of spiritual and sociological problems that we need G-d to help us with by bringing the Messiah and bringing us true peace), and the reason why we are still here is because we can't learn to get along with each other. So long as we tear each other apart with our power of speech, and we throw our neighbor out of the party over some petty fight, the Temple will not be rebuilt. The choice is in our hands - and in our mouths.

One final thought - three times a day we start the Amidah, or silent prayer, which is our chance to speak directly to Hashem, with the following verse: "Oh, Lord, please open my lips, and let my mouth voice your praises." Now, imagine if you wanted to bring a gift to a king. Would you bring him the gift on a filthy tray? Of course not! First you would shine the silver tray, and then you would place the gift upon it.

Well, prayer works the same way. G-d granted us a gift - the chance to meet with Him personally in silent prayer. So shouldn't we first make sure that our mouths, which are the tray upon which we offer our prayers to Him, are perfectly clean and pure before we use them in prayer?

This is what we mean when we ask G-d to "open our lips" in prayer. We are obligated to try and keep our lips and our speech pure, and not to abuse these gifts the entire day. This way, when we approach G-d in prayer, we can open our lips and have a beautifully clean tray upon which to offer our praises.

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Rabbi David Zauderer is a card-carrying member of the Atlanta Scholars Kollel.

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