Understanding the Right Order

The Midrash tells of the peddler who frequented the towns near the city of Tzippori, proclaiming, “Who wants to purchase the elixir of life?”

On one occasion he entered the hometown of Rabi Yannai, and after making his sales pitch, he was besieged by local residents clamoring to buy this wonderful item.

Rabi Yannai, sitting and learning in his nearby residence, overheard the commotion and asked the peddler to come to him since he too wished to purchase the elixir.

“You don’t need it,” the peddler told him, “nor do those who are like you.”

Only after Rabi Yannai pressured him did the peddler agree to show him the elixir. He took out a wrapped-up sefer Tehillim and pointed to the verses “Who is the man who desires life, who loves days to see goodness? Guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit” (34:13–14).

Rabi Yannai responded by quoting the passuk in Mishlei “He who watches his mouth and his tongue guards his soul from tzaros.” However, he interpreted the word tzaros — usually translated as troubles — to mean tzaraas, leprosy.

“All my life I knew this passuk, but I did not know how to explain it until this peddler came and told me,” Rabi Yannai continued.

At first glance, this Midrash appears perplexing.

All the peddler did was show him the pesukim; how did he add to Rabi Yannai’s understanding of the words? Certainly Rabi Yannai was aware of the literal translation.

In addition, why does the Midrash inform us that the Tehillim was wrapped? Of what relevance is this fact?

The Ben Ish Chai quotes the sefer Zera Beirach to give us a fascinating explanation of the Midrash.

The passuk immediately preceding the two verses shown by the peddler reads: “Come, children, hearken to me; I will teach you the fear of Hashem.”

We find (Brachos 28a) a dispute among Rabban Gamliel and other Tanna’im on whether Torah should be taught to everyone and anyone who enters the study hall, or only to those who truly intend to learn l’shem Shamayim. Rabban Gamliel was of the view that only those who were “tocho k’varo,” whose inner selves resembled their outer appearance, should be allowed in.

The Zera Beirach suggests that the dispute was centered on how to understand these pesukim in Tehillim.

Rabban Gamliel understood the verse “Who is the man who desires life?” as a continuation of the previous passuk, “Come, children, hearken to me; I will teach you the fear of Hashem.”

Chazal (Shabbos 63a) inform us that all those who learn Torah merit a great reward. But there is a key difference between those who learn for the sake of Heaven and those who have ulterior motives. The former merit long life as well as wealth and honor, while the latter merit only wealth and honor.

According to Rabban Gamliel, Dovid Hamelech is teaching us that a gathering of students to teach the fear of Hashem is dependent on whether they are among those “who desire life,” i.e., who seek to learn solely l’shem Shamayim. “Who is the man” who should be taught? Only “he who desires life.” Those who did not meet those requirements, Rabban Gamliel would not teach.

According to this view, the following passuk, about guarding one’s tongue and lips from speaking evil, is a new topic, unrelated to desiring life.

The other Tanna’im disagreed with Rabban Gamliel. They interpreted the order of the pesukim so that the passuk “Who is the man who desires life?” is a question that is answered by the following passuk — which teaches us about guarding our tongues from speaking evil and is unrelated to the passuk that precedes it, which discusses teaching students. Therefore, they sought to reach everyone, including those with ulterior motives.

Rabi Yannai was unsure of which approach to follow until the peddler came along and showed him a wrapped-up Tehillim, with only two pesukim uncovered. This indicated that the pesukim should be understood according to the teaching of those Tanna’im who differ with Rabban Gamliel.

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Rashi, in this week’s parashah, quotes the Chazal (Arachin 16b) that asks why the metzora, unlike all other impure individuals, must remain isolated and separate from his brethren.

“Since with his slander he caused a separation between man and wife or between man and his fellow, he too shall be separated…”

When Moshiach comes, may it be speedily in our days, we will once again merit to experience the halachos of the purification of the metzora. But the tragic, devastating effect of lashon hara is very much pertinent in our day.

We all seek happiness, health, and long life for ourselves and those close to us. Let us bear in mind the eternal words of Dovid Hamelech at all times: “Guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit.”