April 23, 2021
I learned this joke many years ago as I was studying the nuances of the Yiddish language:
Russian dictator, Joseph Stalin, had just died and the communist party was looking for a fitting inscription for his tombstone. Remarkably, a Jew came up with the perfect inscription: “Beauty, Purity, and Sacrifice.” Fellow Jews were very upset about this laudatory epitaph and challenged him “How can you say such nice things about such a tyrant and killer?” He smiled and answered “I took it from the Yiddish – a Shayne Reine Kapparah”. This literally means “Beauty, Purity, and Sacrifice” – but in Yiddish parlance it means “NO GREAT LOSS!”
This week, we read from the double Torah portions of Acharei Mot and Kedoshim in the Book of Leviticus (Lev. 16:1-20:27). Next week we will read from the Parasha called Emor. Acharei Mot, refers to the deaths of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, Kedoshim means “holiness” and speaks about many of the laws of holiness, both in the sanctuary and at home, and Emor means “speak” or “say”. Many rabbis have strung the three portions together as follows: “Acharei Mot, Kedoshim Emor!” – In other words, “After someone dies, say that they are holy.”
At times this is a difficult task. Not everyone is a Tzaddik (or saint). We are all flawed; some more than others. But perhaps the overriding principle here is that we should not malign anyone who can not defend him/herself. By definition someone who has passed away can not defend one self.
I believe that this lesson is appropriately found after the portions which we recently read that deal with the phenomenon of biblical leprosy, most commonly associated with “Lashon Hara” (gossip). Usually when one gossips about neighbors, friends, co-workers, or family members, the subject of gossip is usually not present and can not adequately defend himself or herself. In Jewish law, there is a principle forbidding “Lo-eg LaRash” – mocking the indigent. This has been expanded to include demeaning another person who is in no position to come to his/her own defense.
From the time I was a child, I was taught that I should avoid fights if at all possible. But I was also taught that if you can’t avoid a fight, a fight should be a fair one. I contend that it is not a fair fight when we speak ill of others when they do not have an opportunity to respond. This applies to the living and the dead. When someone has passed, it does us little good to demean them. But more importantly, if there is someone in your life with whom you have a grievance, I suggest that instead of resorting to Lashon Hara (gossip), that you go right to the source and express yourself. In so doing you might be able to clear the air, resolve any strife, and foster harmony.
May we all find such harmony in our lives by choosing our words wisely, kindly, and sparingly.