Emor-Good Talk

Our parsha starts with a command to “say” to the Cohanim – to give specific commands to the priests regarding how they should act. However, the Midrash accepts the word Emor on the simplest level possible – to “say” – meaning to use our power of positive speech to say unlimited positive things about other Jews. That is a little strange, though, since elsewhere the Torah enjoins us to “Speak minimally, and act maximally” (Pirkei Avot 1:15), and “R’ Shimon said…I foun d nothing better for the body than stillness…” (Pirkei Avot 1:17).

Interestingly, the command to speak words of Torah comes from another verse, “Vedibartam bam...And you should speak of them” (Deut 6:7), and in this case the Rambam tells us to speak words of Torah sparingly.  That is, we should choose our words when speaking Torah, in such a way as to put as much meaning as possible into as few words as possible (Pirush Mishnayot on Pirkei Avot).  However, our parsha refers not to words of Torah, but to how we speak about other Jews.  The words that we use regarding other Jews are “pure words,” meaning that since they are positive and well meant, they generally have a positive affect upon the person spoken about.

Regarding positive speech, there are two categories; one for Torah scholars, and the other for all others. Regarding Torah scholars, Rambam says, “He should speak only in praise of his fellow man, and never in negative terms” (Hilchot Deot 5:7). But regarding all others who are not (yet) Torah scholars, Rambam says, “it is a commandment to love every Jews as he loves himself…and therefore he should speak well of him” (Hilchot Deot 6:3).  Here, the Rambam neglects to mention that we should “never speak in negative terms.”  Why does the Rambam differentiate between a Torah scholar and one who is not?

From the context, it is clear that Rambam is writing about a situation in which we are aware of a failure or misconduct in a fellow human being.  He wrote his law regarding a Torah scholar following the mishna in Pirkei Avot (1:6) that says, “Judge everyone by giving them the benefit of the doubt.”  Within this context, Rambam tells us that we must not only find a way to look at the person favorably but also refrain from saying anything negative about him, even when we become aware of his negative traits.  Does this mean, though, that one who is not yet a Torah scholar may make negative comments about his fellow man in whom he is aware of something negative?

Absolutely not.  However, there is a difference.  One who is not a Torah scholar may choose, under the right circumstances, to rebuke a fellow Jew. If he is certain that he cares for the other, and that it is not his own ego that he wishes to stroke by criticizing another Jew, then he is not only permitted but must notify him, or at least question him about his negative behavior.  However, a Torah scholar is different; he should not even rebuke him.  Since a Torah scholar exists on a higher and more refined level, he should find a different way to help the person correct his behavior.  Since a Torah scholar’s words carry more weight, and he is a greater example to others, he should focus only on positive words that carry weight. By speaking only positively of others, and especially of the person in question, he may hope to induce him to correct his behavior.  The Torah scholar should realize that as an exemplary personality, his words of rebuke may embarrass and offend the other person.  Therefore, rather than embarrass him, the Torah scholar should focus on his positive qualities so that the other person will improve himself.

This then is the nature of speech mentioned in Emor – positive speech that has a constructive affect on other people.  Words and the power of speech bring out things that are hidden within us, whether for the good or for the bad.  It is incumbent upon us to bring out the good in ourselves as well as in others by speaking positively about them.

For a longer and more detailed rendition, go to www.jerusalemconnection.org 

From Likutei Sichot of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, vol.27, pp 158-166

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