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. Rebbe Yanni 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.” Rebbe Yanni persisted. Finally the peddler took out a Tehillim and opened it to the pasuk “Who is the man who wants life? Guard your tongue from evil.”
Rebbe Yanni exclaimed, “All of my life I’ve read that pasuk, but I never appreciated how simple it was until this peddler revealed it to me!” – Vayikra Rabbah 16:2
It seems Rebbe Yanni learned a great lesson from this peddler, something so powerful it impacted on both his outlook and his actions. The difficulty with this Midrash is that it doesn’t seem Rebbe Yanni learned anything new. He clearly knew the pasuk before the peddler said it. He’d probably reviewed those words hundreds of times before. He had mastered the entire Torah and understood the meaning, depth, and implications of those words. What new concept did Rebbe Yanni learn from the peddler?
Imagine that a mother and father are looking for the right yeshiva for their son. After much investigation, they hit on 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 smoking kills. It’s a habit that’s very difficult to break. 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 change, and smoking does have serious health consequences.
Now let’s play out the same scenario with just one little adjustment: same young man, same yeshiva, same perfect fit. However, instead of the parents finding out the boys smoke, they find out the boys in that yeshiva speak lashon hara. What would we anticipate the parents’ reaction to be?
“Oh my goodness! The Torah warns us against lashon hara! With one conversation, a person can violate dozens of prohibitions. And worse, it can easily become a lifelong habit. Lashon hara kills. It may be a great yeshiva, but forget it. We can’t take the chance!”
Somehow, it doesn’t seem likely 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 these are well-educated people, they know the Torah specifically, clearly, and definitively tells us that speaking lashon hara kills, and that guarding one’s tongue is the Torah’s guarantee for long life. They have heard many shmuzin 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 complications.
So smoking, which might kill, they fear – yet lashon hara, which they know definitely kills, they aren’t that concerned about. How are we to understand this anomaly?