A Chasidic story:
“There once was a town where the only thing the rabbi heard was laughter. He heard that this person said this to that person and then the chain continued on. Each person was talking about the other, they all laughed, except the rabbi and the person who was being laughed about. One day, Shlomo told Barukh about the foolish thing that Yankel had done. Barukh couldn’t stop laughing. Yankel was hurt and wouldn’t talk to Shlomo. Shlomo was very upset and went to the rabbi. He said, ‘I don’t know what to do, Yankel is my good friend but he won’t talk to me now. He slammed the door in my face. I tried to say I’m sorry but he won’t listen to me.’ The rabbi understood. He said to Shlomo, ‘Meet me at noon in the town square with a pillow. I will teach you a great secret, but you can only learn it with a pillow.’ The next day Shlomo showed up with a pillow and met the rabbi. The rabbi had Shlomo rip open the pillow. As soon as he did this the wind started to blow and grab the feathers and carry them away. The rabbi took the pillow and shook it so the air was filled with feathers and the wind carried them all over town. The whole town was filled with feathers. The rabbi then said, ‘Go and gather up all the feathers.’ Shlomo said, ‘That’s impossible, no one could to that.’ Then the rabbi said, ‘Go and gather up the story about the foolish thing Yankel did.’ Shlomo said, ‘That’s impossible.’ Then he got it.”
The story tells us that our words are like feathers in the wind. Once they’ve come out of our mouths, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to take them back.
Our parshah this week, Acharei Mot, continues the story of Aaron’s sons and their relationship with the priesthood. It begins by reminding us why Nadav and Avihu were “zapped.” They drew too close to God. The text continues with a detailed list of the preparations to be made for Yom Kippurand the foods that we’re allowed to eat. The common thread throughout the text is a focus on various relationships to be had and to be held dear. From Nadav and Avihu we gather that there are certain relationships in which it is best to keep some distance and acknowledge that boundaries are there for a reason. When we cross those boundaries, we often find ourselves in a place of irreversible damage. The text tells us the same is true with regard to whom we love and have intimate relations with.
The text then focuses on various types of offerings made in atonement for our actions. Chapter 16, verse 13 begins to tell us of the offering of incense to be made as Aaron purifies the sanctuary of God. It tells us that Aaron is to “put the incense on the fire before the Lord, so that the cloud from the incense screens the cover that is over the Ark of the Pact, lest he die.” The Talmud, in tractateYoma, teaches us about the importance of incense being used to talk about rectifying sins of lashon HaRah, evil speech. The offering of incense is scented, but has no physical presence and is used to atone for the sin of gossip, which also has no physical reality but can be carried far and wide, with its effects lasting long after it has left its place of origin.
This week we read not only about needing to guard our tongues and our relationships, but we also celebrate Shabbat HaGadol, the special Shabbat right before we celebrate Pesach. We think about what it might mean to screen our thoughts before they leave our lips and how to ensure that our fires are the ones that burn within us, the fire of love, the fire of compassion, and the fire of intelligence. We hope that that is what spreads like the feathers in the story, like the presence of God in the text, and encompass the whole earth with understanding and respect.
Family Discussion Questions:
- Our ‘ethical covenant’ teaches us about miyut sichah, minimizing small talk so that we might be more aware of the responsibility each of us has for our own speech. Have you ever said something that you wished you could take back?
- Scents carry not only over physical distance, but over memory and time. What memories do you associate with certain smells?