I know I am in the minority but I love a tongue sandwich. My go-to deli order is pastrami and tongue on rye, and sometimes, hold the pastrami. When I get looks from my family, I proudly declare that “it’s the food that tastes you back.”
My love for tongue came up for me this week as I was studying the weekly Torah portion with my regular hevruta (study partner). We were looking at a series of short teachings on the weekly portion, Metzora. Metzora is Hebrew for “the one who has leprosy,” and the portion (and most of last week’s, for that matter) is all about skin diseases.
The ancient rabbis of the Talmud read the word “metzora” as “motzi shem ra”—“the one who brings forth a bad name.” In other words, they say the biblical affliction of skin diseases as a punishment for evil and hurtful speech and gossip. Whether or not they actually saw a direct connection is hard to say; it certainly challenges our theology and understanding of the way things work. But in any event, it gave them the opportunity to teach about and warn against a harmful practice.
The rabbis in the ancient midrash teach that speaking lashon hara (“evil speech”) is akin to committing murder. We can think about the harm that is caused by gossip or talking ill of another or talking behind one’s back, and we realize that this is not that hyperbolic. Words hurt, and can do lasting damage.
One clever story that we read together comes from an ancient text called Vayikra Rabbah. It reads:
Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel said to his servant Tavi: “Go and buy me something good from the market.” Tavi went and bought him tongue. He said to him, “Go and buy me something bad in the market.” He went and bought him tongue. He said, “How can this be? I told you to buy something good, and you bought me tongue, and I told you to buy something bad, and you bought me tongue?!” Tavi said to him, “It is the best and the worst. When it is good, it is the best, and when it is bad, it is the worst.”
In other words, the tongue (lashon) as food is a symbol of the tongue as speech: it could be either very good or very bad. The key is what we do with it.
This Shabbat is also a special Shabbat called Shabbat HaGadol (“The Great Shabbat”), which is the name given to the Shabbat that immediately precedes Passover. There are multiple reasons given as to why, I like to think of it as being a prelude to such a “great” holiday. Because of all the preparation that goes into celebrating Passover, we need to set aside time to make sure that we are truly ready.
The preparation for Passover takes multiple forms. There is the physical preparation: the removal of leavened products from our home, the purchasing of matzo and other items, the cooking and preparing of the special and symbolic foods. And there is the spiritual preparation: reflecting on the story of the Exodus and its themes of moving from slavery to freedom, from oppression to liberation, and being able to answer the question of how do we see ourselves in the story.
It is because of these themes that Passover is “great.” These themes define our journeys as individuals and as communities. They serve as a paradigm for life itself and our desire to move from places of constriction to places of expansiveness.
But Passover can only be “great” if we make it great. Passover, like speech, can either be very good or very bad, depending on what we make of it. When we focus on just the exterior trappings of what we can and can’t eat, then we are missing what the days are all about. But when we take the time to live into the holiday and truly understand how this ancient story is operating in our lives today, then Passover can be a truly transformative experience. The choice is ours.