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The name of our Torah portion is Emor. It means “say.” It’s in the imperative, meaning that it’s a command, and even though the text refers to the Cohanim, or priests, the Midrash (which gives us the interpretive level of the Torah) applies the command to all Jews. The Midrash says that this Torah portion comes to tell us how to say things, how to use our power of speech, especially when speaking of other Jews. Since the word Emor (say) is stated simply, without any embellishment, it implies positive speech without any limitations – when we speak well of other people, we should do so without reservation. However, that doesn’t seem to jive with what the Torah says elsewhere (in Pirkei Avot 1:15), “Speak minimally, and act maximallyŔ and also, (Pirkei Avot 1:17), “R’ Shimon said…I found nothing better for the body than stillness; the main thing is action and not talk, and a lot of talk leads to sin.”

Interestingly, when it comes to speaking words of Torah, there’s another command – v’dibarta bam – “Speak of them” (Deut 6:7). We should speak as many words of Torah as possible – in fact, our power of speech should be totally invested in words of Torah. However, Rambam says that there’s a special way of speaking Torah – “one should try to expand upon the subject while using as few words as possible, rather than the opposite – this is what the sages meant by, ‘one should always teach his students in a concise manner” (Pirush Mishnayot on Pirkei Avot). When it comes to Torah, we should minimize the number of words we use, while striving to use the words that convey as much meaning as possible. The more concisely we are able to present the Torah subject, the clearer it will be to the person who hears it.

But our parsha is not referring to words of Torah, but rather to words about another Jew. The Midrash describes them as “pure words,” meaning words that, since they are well meant and have positive intention behind them, actually have a positive affect upon the person spoken of. The Midrash relates an interesting story, “In the days of King David, there was a generation of infants whom, before they were aware of sin, were capable of discussing Torah in detail. They could take any matter, give 49 reasons to forbid it and then another 49 reasons to permit it. King David prayed for them, ‘guard them – preserve the Torah that’s in their heart, and protect them from this vile generation.” However, even they (after all of King David’s praise and prayers on their behalf) went out to war and fell in battle. The Midrash explains that since there was strife and discord among them, they were vulnerable. The Midrash then goes on to talk about lashon harah (evil speech) and how it kills three people – the speaker, the listener, and the one spoken about.

Since the Midrash tells us all this regarding negative speech, we know that the opposite must be true regarding the speech alluded to in our parsha. The “Emor,” or mitzvah to speak in our parsha is a command to speak unlimited positive words about another Jew – and these are not just simple words, but rather words that have a positive affect upon the person spoken of.

How can this be? In general, there are two categories of positive speech. In his laws of conduct (Hilchot Deot 5:7), the Rambam says regarding a Torah scholar, “He should speak [only] in praise of his fellow man, and not at all of his negative qualities.” And yet, in another place (Hilchot Deot 6:3), the Rambam says that “it is a commandment for everyone to love every other Jew as he loves himself, since it says ‘You should love your fellow Jew as yourself.’ Therefore he should speak well of him.”
That is, there is one category of speech for Torah scholars, who must always act gently and strive to make a pleasant impression on the world. Not only should the Torah scholar always speak positively, but he must under no circumstances say a negative word about another Jew. There is a second category of speech that applies to all other Jews, including those who are not (yet) Torah scholars. They must always speak positively of other Jews, but the Rambam does not add the stipulation that they must never say anything negative regarding another Jew. What is special about the speech of a Torah scholar, when in any case all Jews are commanded to speak well of other Jews?

It’s understood from the context that the Rambam is referring to a special case. He wrote his law about Torah scholars following the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (1:6) that states, “Judge everyone by giving them the benefit of the doubt.” That means that when we become aware of fault or misconduct in someone, we must nevertheless take their circumstances into account, before pronouncing judgment. It is within this context that the Rambam says that a Torah scholar must not only find a way to look at the person favorably, but also must refrain from saying anything negative about him. Even when the Torah scholar becomes aware of the other’s negative traits, he must speak his praise, so that the negativity becomes drowned out completely. Not only judge him favorably, but as the Rambam says, the Torah scholar must praise him.

Does that mean, though that any other Jew, who is not (yet) a Torah scholar, may say negative things about a Jew with whom he has found fault? Absolutely not. However, there’s a difference. One who is not a Torah scholar, under the proper circumstances may choose to rebuke the wrong-doer. If he is sure that his only motivation is to correct and rectify the other’s behavior, and that in essence he truly has the other person’s good in mind, then he may approach him privately, and make him aware of his misdeed. In so doing, he will hopefully enable him to rectify his behavior. However, the Torah scholar, who must strive to make the ultimate “pleasant impression on G-d’s creation,” has another way to rectify the guilty person’s behavior. He should not rebuke him, and may not even say a negative word; he may only speak the most positive possible words about him, and in that way hope to correct him.

Words uttered by a Jew have power. Indeed, that is why the sages said that lashon harah (negative speech about another) kills three. It is understood how negative speech might “kill” the speaker and the listener. But, how does it have an affect on the person spoken about? The answer is that it brings into revelation things that were previously hidden. The thought that was previously concealed inside the speaker’s mind, comes to revelation when he talks, and when the bad about the other person becomes revealed, it has the power to harm. It’s better not to speak, since then the bad remains concealed and lacks the power to harm others. And that’s why the Torah scholar will do just the opposite – even when he knows something bad about another, he will keep it to himself and say only good things about him. “A positive trait has more power than punishment” (Sota 11A) – if by saying something negative you can harm someone, all the more-so will speaking well of him hopefully bring out his good points.

Another deeper way of understanding this is the following. If a person is going through tests and challenges, it is because the One above gave him the ability to withstand and overcome them. If he does something wrong because he is faced with tests, it means that he has failed to actualize and put his higher, G-d given abilities into action. In such a case, we are supposed to “judge him favorably.” But, how can we judge him favorably when we know he has faults? It may be possible to find a way to justify him and understand his behavior. But how can we say that he is doing something ‘favorable?’ The answer is that by speaking well of him, we may help him to actualize the higher abilities that G-d gave him, and put them into action. When he hears that others (in particular, those who know of his faults) are speaking well of him, maybe that will encourage him to face his own defects, work on them, and correct them. Not everyone is capable of bringing out another person’s higher potential, but a Torah scholar, who is required to speak pleasantly and make a good impression, should try to help another Jew deal with his faults and correct them by speaking well of him.

That’s the kind of speech that is demanded by our parsha – Emor. Speak only well of another Jew, because in that way you’ll bring out his own hidden, higher abilities to deal with his situation. By pointing out his good points, you help him actualize them and come to a higher level. And then, what were his bad points become good points. But, the Torah scholar can only do this if he focuses on what are truly the person’s good points, even if right now they remain in potential. Therefore, he must speak only well of others, and never say a bad word about them. That’s why the Torah uses the word Emor (say) and not Daber (speak). Daber implies tough talk – the kind of talk that you need to warn and command someone else. But, the Torah chooses the word Emor (say) because it implies a soft-spoken, gentle speech, the kind of speech that is accepted pleasantly. When you speak softly and pleasantly about the other, you bring out his good points, and turn the negative into positive.

Rashi mentions another point about Emor. He says it means that parents must “warn” and educate their children in the matters regarding Cohanim, or priests. The elders, must transmit knowledge to the youngsters (about the special requirements of the priests). We are all “elders” and “youngsters,” since all Jews are one family. The “elders” are those who have some experience and success in serving G-d, and the “youngsters” are those who are still learning, or perhaps have no knowledge at all. The “elders” are commanded lehazhir (to warn, but also) from the word zohar, meaning shining or illuminating. When the elders, who are Torah scholars and servants of G-d speak well about the youngsters (those who are not yet on a level to connect with the One above), the result is illumination. When we see something negative in another Jew, we must not reveal it to others. On the contrary, if we are truly “elders,” we will only speak positively and thereby illuminate and reveal the other’s higher qualities. In so doing, we will hopefully turn the negative into something shining and positive.

From Likutei Sichot of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, ztz’l, vol. 27, pp. 158-166 Rabbi David Sterne, Jerusalem Connection in the Old City of Jerusalem