While traveling from city to city selling his wares, a peddler approached the city of Tzipori and called out in a loud voice, “Who wants to buy the potion of life? Who wants life?” A crowd gathered around him. Rabbi Yanai heard the commotion and stood by watching. When he heard the man’s offer, he said to him, “I would like to purchase some.” The peddler responded, “It’s not for you and your type.” Rabbi Yanai persisted. Finally the peddler took out a T’hilim and opened it to the pasuk, “Who is the man who wants life? Guard your tongue from evil.”

Rabbi Yanai exclaimed, “All of my life I read that pasuk, and never appreciated how simple it was until this peddler revealed it to me!”

What did the peddler reveal to Rabbi Yanai?

It seems that Rabbi Yanai learned a great lesson from this peddler, something so powerful that it impacted on both his outlook and his actions. The difficulty with this midrash is that it doesn’t seem that Rabbi Yanai learned anything new. He clearly knew the pasuk before the peddler said it. He’d probably reviewed those words hundreds of times before. As he was a Tanna (scholar of the Mishnah, redacted c. 200 CE), he had mastered the entire Torah and understood the meaning, depth, and implications of those words. What new concept did Rabbi Yanai learn from the peddler?

The answer to this can be best understood with a mashal (parable). Imagine that a mother and father are looking for the right yeshiva for their son. After much investigation, they hit upon the perfect solution. It’s got the right type of environment, the right type of boys, just the right blend – a perfect fit. But then they hear the news: The boys in that yeshiva smoke!

“Oh my goodness!” they both exclaim. “Now what? It may be a great yeshiva, and our son might flourish there, but everyone knows that smoking kills. It’s a habit that’s very difficult to quit. It’s just not worth it.”

So they decide not to send their son to that yeshiva.

While you and I may debate whether they made the right choice, no one would argue that they have a very valid concern. After all, bad habits really are difficult to break, and smoking does have serious health consequences.

Now let’s play out the same scenario with just one little change: same young man, same yeshiva, same perfect fit…however, instead of the parents finding out that the boys smoke, they find out that the boys in that yeshiva speak lashon ha’ra. What would we anticipate the parents’ reaction to be?

“Oh my goodness! The Torah warns us against lashon ha’ra! With one conversation, a person can violate dozens of prohibitions. And worse, it can easily become a lifelong habit. Lashon ha’ra kills. It may be a great yeshiva, but forget it. We can’t take the chance!”

Somehow it doesn’t seem likely that that would be the reaction. More likely, their attitude would be, “Listen, it’s not something we are happy to hear, but it isn’t a reason to disqualify a good yeshiva.”

Let’s analyze the difference in their reactions. Assuming that these are well-educated people, they know that the Torah specifically, clearly, and definitively tells us that speaking lashon ha’ra kills, and that guarding one’s tongue is the Torah’s guarantee to long life. They have heard many “shmuzen” discussing the severity of this issue, and they don’t question it.

On the other hand, they are aware that while smoking has a high correlation to various diseases, at the end of the day it is only a small percentage of people who actually die from smoking-related issues.

So smoking, which may kill, they fear, yet lashon ha’ra, which they know definitely kills, they aren’t that concerned about. How are we to understand this anomaly?

The answer is that when medical science tells us something, we accept it as truth. These are the facts; this is reality. Unfortunately, when the Torah tells us something, it just isn’t real. “Well… you need a lot of emunah to really accept that….I don’t know if I am on the level to keep that….” And so in the parents’ minds, “lashon ha’ra … well, I mean… a mitzvah it’s not, but it surely isn’t as dangerous as smoking. Smoking really kills!”

This seems to be the answer to Rabbi Yanai. As great as he was and as much as he accepted every word of the Torah as completely true, on some level it wasn’t 100 percent real to him. The peddler revealed to Rabbi Yanai that the Torah is teaching us “lashon ha’ra kills” in its most simple, direct meaning. It then became real to him.

The greatest distance on earth is between the head and the heart

There are two great lessons for us in this. One is simply to understand the gravity of the words that we utter, their effects on others and on ourselves. The second lesson is much more broad-based and affects all areas of our growth. We humans are motivated by that which we consider valuable. If we live in a culture that uses money and material possessions as the measure of success, this affects us and becomes part of our reality. It becomes a goal worth pursuing – something to aspire to and something to use as a gauge of our achievements. While we are acutely aware that we can’t take it with us, our value system becomes distorted. This affects our focus and how we spend our time.

One of the most important aspects of growth is making the Torah’s values real: not in theory, not as some remote distant idea, but rather “getting it,” understanding that every word in the Torah is true. While we may not feel it now, one day we will. One day, we will understand that every word of Torah learning is more precious than fine jewels. One day, we will appreciate that every callous remark that we ever made will come back to haunt us. And one day, we will recognize that every action, deed, and thought was being videotaped to be played back to us at the end of our days.

The more that we focus on the value system of the Torah, the more real it becomes to us, and the more motivated we will be by that which has eternal value and preciousness.

Born and bred in Kew Gardens Hills, R’ Ben Tzion Shafier joined the Choftez Chaim Yeshiva after high school. Shortly thereafter he got married and moved with his new family to Rochester, where he remained in for 12 years. R’ Shafier then moved to Monsey, NY, where he was a Rebbe in the new Chofetz Chaim branch there for three years. Upon the Rosh Yeshiva’s request, he stopped teaching to devote his time to running Tiferes Bnei Torah. R” Shafier, a happily married father of six children, currently resides in Monsey.