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Religion

Talk is cheep

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What would you expect would lie at the centre of the five books of the Torah? Something pretty central to Torah values? Perhaps the paragraph of the Shema, the command to love your fellow person as yourself, or maybe even the 10 commandments.

Instead, the middle of the Torah discusses the laws of negaim – a term which is difficult to translate, never mind understand. Negaim are spiritual lesions that afflict one’s body, one’s clothes, or one’s home. The Torah goes into considerable detail about these lesions, discussing the process of diagnosis and providing the required treatment. Strangely enough, it doesn’t explicitly reveal the underlying cause of this spiritual malady.

Enter the birds. In order for a person with negaim to be purified, the Torah requires a ritual process involving “two healthy, pure birds” (Vayikra/Leviticus 14:4). Rashi, the great commentator, comments on the adjective “pure”.

“The birds had to be pure and not impure since negaim result from negative speech which is an action of prattling words. Therefore, birds are needed to purify for they prattle incessantly with a chirping voice.”

There’s certainly a lot to be confused about here, but particularly confusing is how Rashi saw the word “pure” – first that negaim result from negative speech, “an action of prattling words”, and second, that only pure birds can correct this whilst impure birds cannot.

Is there possibly a message these negaim convey that’s a central Torah value and that lies at the heart of Jewish life? I think there is. It’s a well-established but sometimes forgotten one. The message was taught to us by our founding forefather, Abraham, passed through the generations, reiterated in the Ethics of our Fathers, and it occupies the centre of the Torah.

The message is: talk is “cheep”.

Birds say much. They prattle incessantly. An impure bird makes out of prattling words an action in and of itself. A pure bird, however, turns prattling words into a call, a pre-action, a call to action.

Negative speech is when the speech becomes the action in and of itself. Positive speech – Torah speech, Jewish speech – is when the speech is a precursor to action.

Abraham is praised for saying little and doing much. Our sages taught that “the expounding isn’t the main thing, action is”.

And so, at the centre of the Torah lies its central teaching: spiritual well-being, pure living, and Jewish values all come from prioritising not what we say, but what we do.

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