At that time, all the earth spoke one language, and was united in speech.
We know the power of speech; we witness it everyday. Words have the power to
build lasting relationships, and even to save people’s lives. Though it is
true that a picture can be worth a thousand words, it is also true that the
right words at the right moment can accomplish things that even a thousand
pictures cannot. Apparently, it was their common language that allowed the
Generation of the Dispersion to work together in order to embark upon the
bold project of building a stone skyscraper that would reach Heaven.
We also see how biting and destructive words can be, destroying in a matter
of seconds what can take years to build up. We have stung and been stung by
words, which have the power to incite wars and cause people to kill one
another. The right speaker with the right words can mobilize an entire
country for either good or bad, and we have seen some of both. As the Torah
relates, it was their power of speech that led the Generation of the
Dispersion to rebel against God.
We should not be surprised that speech is so central to human history since
God formed man from dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils a
living soul, and the man became a living spirit. (Bereishis 2:7)
A LIVING SPIRIT: A speaking spirit. (Onkeles)
Hence, the aspect of man that reveals that he possesses a soul is his
ability to speak. However, what reveals the extent to which his soul impacts
his body is how he speaks, as the Holy Zohar explains:
From a man’s mouth you can tell what he is. (Zohar, Bamidbar 193)
How many times do we meet people who appear to be respectable and mature,
even dressing the part, only to hear them spew foul language, dramatically
changing our opinion of them? Many people use such base speech to try and
impress other people, seemingly unaware that it has the opposite effect. But
then again, if they do talk that way, they probably lack sufficient
spiritual sensitivity to be able to measure the impact of their way of
speaking on others.
If you ask someone who grew up secular, and for whom such language was
standard fare in everyday conversations, and who later became Torah
observant, they will tell you how shocked they are every time they happen to
hear someone speak that way. “Every time someone swears around me, my body
cringes,” a ba’al teshuvah once told me. “Even though I am still quite
familiar with the words from my past,” he said, “I have grown
super-sensitive to their vulgarity after years of learning Torah.”
It wasn’t just his lack of exposure to such words over the years that made
him so sensitive to coarse language. Rather, the more he learned Torah, the
more refined his speech became because he became a more refined person.
Between the laws that actually govern how a Jew must speak and all the Torah
he learned that allowed his soul to increase its say in how his body acted,
he, and others like him, became more of a Tzelem Elokim, a person who was
not only made in the image of God, but acts it as well.
Over the last couple of years, when reading comments posted by readers after
specific articles, I have been amazed at how quickly and easily commentators
have resorted to foul language to make their points. I guess they feel that
just as a picture is worth a thousand words, a swear word can be worth a
thousand emotions, and that they do not realize how much they discredit
themselves when writing that way.
It means something. Obviously you cannot judge an entire society by a few
foul-mouthed individuals, but we’re not talking about a few foul-mouthed
individuals. And, we’re not talking only about foul language, but about a
societal attitude of “talk is cheap,” and about millions of people who say
things without enough regard for what their words mean, or of how really
accurate they are.
This is not true only of the everyday man in the street, but of people in
positions of great responsibility, including and especially, world leaders.
If we are shocked by their understanding of world dynamics and their
confusion about who are the real good guys and the real bad guys, we’d
probably be even more shocked by their world view that results in their
confusing and often surprising statements.
In short, a good portion of the world seems to be out to lunch. Listen to
what they are saying. Read what they are writing. Pay attention to what they
are paying attention to, and what is the center of their focus. Try to
engage them in a meaningful conversation and see how long it lasts, if it
even gets started. But, talk about the latest technology and eyes light up,
speech becomes animated, and strangers can become the best of friends just
by sharing information about the latest smart phone or something similar.
No wonder no one is concerned, or concerned enough, about Iran and its
threat to Israel, the Middle-East, and the world for that matter. No wonder
few people take the time to actually research for themselves the history
behind the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, their peoples, and their leaders,
to see who is lying and who is actually telling the truth. It’s just not
where the mind of the average person is, or wants to go.
Like in the time of the Tower of Bavel, this does not bode well for mankind,
and certainly not for the Jewish people. To whom can we plead our case? To
whom shall we present the facts of history and our right to our land? Who
will listen, and who will be objective enough to properly evaluate the
facts? Judging by the way people talk today, and what that represents
intellectually, not too many people.
And, when God has had enough of our abuse of language, after having used it
for generations to misinform people and to lead them astray after false
ideas and worthless goals, He will lower the boom once again, shaking up
mankind until people come to their senses. And when they do, all of a
sudden, talk will no longer be cheap, but valued and intelligent.
This is why Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, begins with the Kol
Nidrei Service, which is completely about taking vows, fulfilling them, or
canceling them when necessary. We’re so used to the service now, and are so
moved by the tune, that we forget to ask the all-important question of: Why
do we begin the Day of Atonement of with a prayer about speech?
For that matter, how many people ask about the name of Pesach, which happens
to mean “the mouth that spoke,” and why it is that we spend the entire night
speaking the Haggadah, even if we know it by heart and happen to be alone
for the Seder? Or, why the most important symbol of our eternal with
God—circumcision—is called Bris Milah, literally, the “Covenant of the Word.”
It is more than interesting that modern Israeli society is choosing to adapt
its language to that of the rest of the world. First it began with English
words for which there was no direct Hebrew translation, and which,
therefore, were spoken in Hebrew as in English, but with a Hebrew accent.
Today, however, even English words for which there are Hebrew words are
being Hebraized, while the actual Hebrew words for the same idea are being
This represents more than verbal laziness. It represents the drive of
secular Israeli society to merge with the Western world, something that
began long ago in terms of lifestyle. Merging modern Hebrew with modern
English is just the natural outcome of this, and of a disturbing trend of
severing Jews from their past and the way of the ancestors. The last thing
to go when people assimilate is their language, and once that goes, so too
will the Jewish people.
Not physically, at least not completely. And, it is not only about keeping
Hebrew Hebrew, but it is also about talking like a Jew. That is not a matter
of accent, but a matter of content and intention, of talking like a
Tzelem-Elokim. Because, just as the way we think influences the way we talk,
the way we talk also influences the way we think. Talking Godly forces us to
think Godly which will make us act Godly.
This is important for another reason. Kabbalah teaches us that every time we
speak, we create an angel. If we speak in a holy manner, or at least in a
respectable manner, then we create an advocate. When a person speaks
improperly, then he creates a prosecuting angel, and once they’re out, they
can’t be reigned back in again, as we will see on our final day of judgment,
when they all jump on their respective sides of the scale. If we don’t weigh
our words carefully, they will carefully weigh them later on when there is
no longer any time to make amends, except in Gihenom.
This is Bris Milah. We have made a covenant with God to not only speak, but
to speak meaningfully, as the Talmud states:
Rebi Elazar said: Every man was created to toil, as it says, “Because man
was made to toil” (Iyov 5:7). However, I do not know if that means to toil
through speech, or in actual labor, but once it says, “A toiling soul toils
for him, for his mouth compels him” (Mishlei 16:26), I know that a person
was created to toil with his mouth. Nevertheless, I do not know if this
means to toil in Torah or just in regular conversation, until it says, “This
Torah should not leave your mouth” (Yehoshua 1:8): I know that man was
created to toil in Torah [through speech]. (Sanhedrin 99b)
Text Copyright © 2012 by Rabbi Pinchas Winston and Torah.org.