Shabbat Shalom everybody and thank you for joining me for my Bat Mitzvah. This week’s Parashah is Metzora, from the book of Vayikra. Usually Tazriya and Metzora are read together in the same week. This year, as it is a Jewish leap year, all the double parashiot are read on separate weeks. However, in order to understand some of the concepts in this week’s Parashah, we need to talk about Tazriya too.
Parashat Tazriya speaks about the sin of Lashon Hara and the punishment that people got if they did it. Lashon Hara is speaking badly about another person, specifically negative things that are true. In the times of the Torah and Bet Hamikdash, if a person spoke Lashon Hara, they would develop a skin disease called Tzara’at. White patches would appear on their skin to show that they had spoken negatively about someone. If they didn’t regret their words and change their ways, then the Tzara’at would also appear on their clothes and belongings. After that, if they still didn’t regret it, then it would appear on their homes for all people to see. Why was Lashon Hara punished with such a public and embarrassing punishment? There is a childish phrase, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me”. This phrase tells children that words can’t do any real damage. But in Judaism we know that words have power. When we speak badly about another person, it can cause other people to hate or dislike them; it can hurt their feelings; and it can ruin their lives. Speaking Lashon Hara is a cowardly and sneaky thing to do, so Hashem punished it in a very noticeable and embarrassing way.
Former Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks explains that normally in Judaism we don’t believe in embarrassing or shaming people into behaving better. In fact, we believe that only Hashem can judge us for our actions. So Rabbi Sacks also wondered why Lashon Hara was specifically punished in such a shaming way. He said that people who have studied human history think that humans developed language in order to build stronger bonds with each other and be able to work together in large groups. Cooperation needs trust and Lashon Hara breaks that trust. Language is what holds a community together, and Hashem takes careful speech very seriously. Rabbi Sacks says that Lashon Hara was punished publicly because if it was dealt with in a court then people would say “I didn’t mean it” or “I didn’t say it”. So people would be more careful about their speech if they knew they would get a shameful punishment if they said the wrong thing.
Now that we have an understanding of the sin of Lashon Hara and what punishment Bnei Yisra’el used to get if they spoke it; this week’s Parashah, Metzora, continues by explaining what a person had to do once their Tzara’at was gone. A person with Tzara’at would have their Tzara’at inspected by a Kohen and then be sent outside the city or camp by themselves for a week of prayer and self reflection. At the end of the week, the Kohen would return and check the person’s skin once again. If the Tzara’at was gone it meant they had fully regretted their actions. They would then have to bring an offering to Hashem. The offering was made up of two live birds, some seeder wood, crimson wool and hyssop. One of the birds was sacrificed in a vessel and the second bird was dipped together with the other items in the blood and then released. This seems like an unusual selection of items and instructions but there are a few deep lessons we can learn about Lashon Hara from this offering.
Rashi - one of the great Torah commentators - discussed this offering and explained the symbolism of the four items. The birds represent the thoughtless chatter of a person who speaks Lashon Hara. Just like birds twitter and make a lot of noise; we also often speak without thinking. Rashi continues by explaining that the seeder tree is a tall tree so the seeder wood symbolises the arrogance of a person who speaks Lashon Hara. The hyssop is a small bush and along with the wool, represents humility and modesty. In the Mishnah, it also says that even if the person who spoke Lashon Hara is a Kohen, he must ask another Kohen to inspect his tzara’at and purify him, even though he knows how to do it himself. This is because if he arrogantly spoke Lashon Hara then he has to be humble and ask another Kohen for help. Rabbi Yisra’el Salanter said that people are very good at judging other people harshly and not judging themselves as harshly. If we were truly aware of our own faults, then we would not speak negatively about other people. The only way to stop ourselves speaking Lashon Hara is to become more humble.
There is another interesting explanation of the two birds that are offered and what is done with them. One of the birds represents negative speech and the other one represents positive speech. We can ask two questions about this idea. Firstly, why would someone need to bring an offering for positive speech? Secondly, even if that seemed like a logical thing to do, why would this person need to bring an offering for positive speech if they didn’t speak positively? We can learn a deep idea from this. When we speak Lashon Hara, we are doing two things wrong. Obviously we are speaking negatively about another person. But additionally, we are missing the opportunity to speak positively. Sometimes we can be so focused on not doing the wrong thing that we forget to take opportunities to do the right thing. We aren’t meant to avoid speaking altogether just because we are scared of speaking badly - after all, Hashem gave us a voice to be used for good. Continuing this idea, the bird that represents negative speech is sacrificed, whilst the bird representing positive speech is dipped in its blood and set free. This shows us we can move forward and speak positively from now on, but reminds us that we will always carry our mistakes with us - as a reminder of what we need to improve in the future.
I have enjoyed learning this Parashah as I feel quite connected to the ideas in it. I try to be very careful with my speech in life. People who know me well, know that I can at times be a loud and giggly character. But I try not to waste my words and be loud in all situations. I would much rather be known as a person who only says things if she has something positive to say, than as a person who talks and talks without filtering the negative out of the positive. I also think it is really important to be self aware and modest. Not that I need to be unsure of myself, but if I am aware of bothmy brilliant qualities and my weaker points then I will think carefully before criticising other people. And if I stick to these lessons of carefully considered, positive speech then I know I will always build good, trusting relationships in my life. As I grow older, I hope I can always use my words to bring positivity and goodness into the world around me.
I see it as a huge privilege to be able to stand here on my Bat Mitzvah, surrounded by family and friends, and share my reflections on the Parashah and my hopes for my future. Sadly there were many Jewish girls during the Holocaust who did not reach this age and enter Jewish adulthood. I have chosen to twin my Bat Mitzvah through Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and would like to take a moment to tell you about Mania Kravchik - a child from Lachva, a city in Belarus which was under Polish rule at the time. Born in 1930, Mania was the daughter of David and Rachel Kravchik and - as far as I can tell from researching the Yad Vashem website - Mania had one younger sister called Nechama. Rachel and her two daughters both died in the Holocaust but there is no information on what happened to David. I would like to dedicate my Bat Mitzvah to Mania who was killed in 1942 before she was able to celebrate her Bat Mitzvah. Whether or not our family Krafchik is descended from the Kravchiks of Lachva, I hope I can bring honour to the family name in the future.
I am very sad that two of my close relatives are no longer with us to share my Bat Mitzvah. My Zaide Morris died 3 years ago and my Great Aunt Claire died 6 years ago. I miss them both very much and wish that they could be here.
I would like to thank my teacher, Jo Jocobson, for all of her help in preparation for today. I have learnt so much from her.
Thank you to Toby Cohen for singing Anim Zemerot on this special day for me.
My parents have provided for myself and my sister Maya, a wonderful, fun, loving family environment. I would like to thank them for all of their love and support and for everything they have done for me. It has been so special to share this day with all my family and friends and thank you for coming here today to celebrate my Bat mitzvah with me.