The Midrash (Vayikra Rabba (16:2), in discussing the association between the tzara’at skin infection and the sin of lashon ha-ra, tells the famous story of a peddler who traveled through several neighborhoods announcing that he was selling “life-giving potion.” Rabbi Yannai heard the announcement from his home, and he invited the peddler in to show him his wares. The peddler came and opened up a book of Tehilim to the verses (34:13-15), “Who is the man who desires life, who loves [his] days in which to behold goodness? Guard your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit…” Rabbi Yannai then exclaimed, “All my life I have read this verse, but I did not know its meaning, until this peddler came along.” It seems that until this peddler came, Rabbi Yannai did not fully understand the concept that guarding one’s tongue, and avoiding lashon ha-ra, is “life-giving potion.”
How might we explain Rabbi Yannai’s excitement over his newfound understanding? What did the peddler teach him about these verses in Tehillim that he had not known before?
The answer, perhaps, lies in the dramatic analogy drawn by this peddler between physical life and spiritual success. The peddler conveyed a powerful message by arousing interest in the prospect of a “life-giving potion,” and then pointing to the ethical teachings found in Tehillim. He taught that when the verse in Tehillim speaks of one “who desires life,” referring to a life of moral and spiritual achievement, it means that we should desire spiritual wellbeing with similar intensity and rigor with which we seek to maintain our physical wellbeing. We should be as enthusiastic over the Torah’s “potion” for good health – speaking and acting appropriately, in a moral and dignified manner – as we would be over a potion that guaranteed long life. And it was perhaps this literal meaning of the phrase “chafetz chayim” (“desires life”) that Rabbi Yannai came to understand through his brief meeting with this traveling salesman. The interest and excitement aroused by the advertisement of “life-giving potion” provided a model for the kind of interest and excitement with which we are to approach the Torah’s formula for religious success. We are to enthusiastically embrace and welcome every new teaching and every new lesson that we learn, recognizing its value in ensuring our spiritual wellbeing, which ought to be our highest priority and primary goal throughout our lives.