At that time, all the earth spoke one language, and was united in speech. (Bereishis 11:1)
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 it says:
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 forgotten.
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)
Copyright © by Rabbi Pinchas Winston and Project Genesis, Inc.
Rabbi Winston has authored many books on Jewish philosophy (Hashkofa). If you enjoy Rabbi Winston’s Perceptions on the Parsha, you may enjoy his books. Visit Rabbi Winston’s online book store for more details! www.thirtysix.org