Learning to talk: Judaism teaches us to watch what come out of our mouths

Rabbi Douglas Zelden

By Rabbi Doug Zelden, Guest Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Matot-Masei (Numbers 30:2–36:13)

As a parents of four children, my wife and I have always marveled at the various stages of their development. We bought books when our oldest was born with detailed descriptions of the timeline for everything from sitting up to walking and running and waited with great anticipation for every step. What parent can forget the day when their child first began to crawl, or the day they stood up and began to walk. We applauded, cheered them on, and then picked up the phone to tell everyone that the baby had just taken her first steps and it was only a matter of time before they were going to be graduating college, which our oldest just did just a few weeks ago.  

Nevertheless it seems to me that of all the various accomplishments in a child’s development there is one that stands out. It is without a doubt when they say their first word. When it comes to talking I imagine all households are the same. The scenario goes something like this, one parent hears the baby mumble something and exclaims with great excitement to their spouse, “Did you hear that she said Abba”. Of all the development stages of our children the one we want to see (or hear) the most, and therefore concoct something about every sound we hear, is when they speak. By doing this we acknowledge that language is one of the most important aspects of human development.  

The ability to communicate through words is what makes us uniquely human. In the opening verses of the Torah when Adam is described as a “living creature” our commentaries explain that to mean “a speaking soul” (Commentator Onkelos on Genesis 2:7).  Language is what makes us what we are. Communication is what allows us to build cultures and civilization. Without the ability to speak and communicate there would be no way to share ideas, learn, teach, and advance our society. Without the ability to communicate we would certainly be lost.

Just remember how helpless you may have felt in a foreign country when you were unable to communicate your wishes because you couldn’t speak the language. I remember in France back in 1992, that very feeling, until I found Jews I could speak to in Hebrew. Indeed speech and communication is our greatest gift.

But as with all gifts we must be careful how we use it because it can be easily abused. It is for this reason that in Jewish thought, speech occupies a central place. Our tradition warns us of the appropriate and inappropriate ways we should use our speech.

This theme can be clearly seen at the outset of this week’s double Parsha of “Matot-Masei”. It begins with the following words, “Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes of the children of Israel thus saying. If a man takes a vow before Hashem, or he take an oath, he shall not break his word, he shall do according to everything that has been uttered from his mouth” (Numbers 30:2-3).

The Torah here gives a very direct and important directive, which is to never speak empty words. Honesty and doing that which we promise to do is of the highest priority in the Torah. Our Rabbis in the Talmud Shabbat 55a explain that the signature of G-d is “truth” (emet). We acknowledge this every day when we conclude the “Shema” with the words, “Hashem our G-d is truth”.

How interesting are the words of Rabbi Moses Schreiber, the “Chatam Sofer” on this passage. He asks why the obligation to tell the truth and fulfill ones vows is first of all communicated to the heads of all the tribes. Rabbi Schreiber answers that this teaches us that first and foremost it is incumbent on the leaders and politicians of the community to be truthful and do that which they say they will do. Honesty, he explains, begins at the top with our leaders.

The opening of our Parsha deals with the importance of speech as it relates to telling the truth and standing by our words. However in Jewish tradition the abuse of speech doesn’t end with telling a lie.

In his commentary on the above verse I quoted from our parsha “Rashi” explains the words “he shall not break (Yachel) his word” as follows, “He shall not make his words mundane” (Rashi on Numbers 30:2). Here Rashi is adding another element to how we can abuse speech, which is by making it mundane. There is a Mishnah in Pirke Avos (Ethics of our Fathers) that sheds light on this comment. In chapter three we read the following, “Rabbi Akiva would say mockery and levity accustoms a person to immorality… the way to wisdom is through silence” (Avot 3:13).

In these statements Rabbi Akiva warns us of the dangers of misused speech and concludes by saying that if we have nothing important or constructive to say then silence is the best course to follow.

How powerful are the words of Rabbi Akiva. A wise person he explains knows when to speak and when to stay silent. The wise person weighs their every word as if it was rationed water. They are careful to refrain from idle talk, profanity and gossip. They are careful to cherish the gift of speech and use it in the most intelligent way. What Rabbi Akiva is saying is that beyond telling the truth we must also be careful to make our speech useful and productive.  

There is yet another level to speech. So far we have talked about truthful speech and intelligent speech. The highest level of all is what I’d call “Holy Speech”. In fact the words used to describe the Hebrew language are “Lashon Hakodesh” which means the “Holy Language”. What is holy speech? I would say it is the speech of connection. If speech is what allows us to build and create then speech is also what allows us to connect. Holy speech allows us to connect to others and ultimately it allows us to connect to G-d.

Through our speech we can either build or destroy our relationships with others, and through our speech we can build or destroy our relationship with Hashem. When I think of “Holy Speech” the first thing that comes to mind is prayer.

Perhaps we can use prayer as the model for what constitutes “Holy Speech”. Maimonides in his code explains that prayer must consist of three separate expressions of speech which are to, Praise the Holy one blessed be he, then to request your needs, and finally to give thanks to Hashem” (Maimonides Laws of Prayer 1:2).  

When we praise, request (which acknowledges our need for G-d’s help), and give thanks we build our relationship to G-d. These are holy words that elevate us a make us feel close and connected to G-d. They take the gift of speech to its highest level because through praise, request and thanksgiving we can come to love Hashem  and feel completely connected to Hashem. Using this example we can also apply it to our relationships with others.

Speech consisting of praise, request and thanks helps us connect to others and build healthy relationships with them. When we use our speech to connect to others and to Hashem, then speech is elevated to the realm of “Holy Speech”.  

How sorely abused is the gift of speech in our times. Profanity is everywhere; we are desensitized to its effects. Gossip is the norm in almost every conversation. We are so harsh and insensitive in the way we speak to others and of others. How unfortunate is the way we have often abused this most precious gift. I can only pray for a world with a little bit less cursing, yelling, negative criticism, vulgarity, and complaining. In its place I would love to see more praising, thanking, praying, complementing, and constructive criticism, because “Holy speech” should really be the “Only Speech”.

Rabbi Doug Zelden is the Rabbi of Congregation Or Menorah (Orthodox) in Chicago, host of the weekly TV Show
“Taped with… Rabbi Doug” (www.tvrabbi.com), and chaplain
at Home Bound Hospice.          

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