My mother used to admonish us with her favorite saying: “Not everything that one thinks should be spoken, and not everything one speaks should be written.” She tried, not always successfully, to teach us to be careful with words.
These days, after WikiLeaks, my mother’s words turn out not to be just an old wives’ tale. Her motherly warning has now become the virtual Bible of the diplomatic corps. Cables are now far more circumspect, negative opinions about individuals are carefully sanitized, and increased self-control about what one writes or speaks is the order of the day. In brief, diplomats today know that if you don’t want it repeated in public, better not say it or write it even in private. Which is good advice for non-diplomats as well.
Jews have always known about the double-edged sword that is speech, how it can soothe and heal or wound and destroy. “Maves vechaim b’yad lashon,” says King Solomon in Proverbs 18:21. Death and life reside in that all-powerful weapon we call the tongue.
When God, in Bereishit 2:7, breathes into Adam the nishmat chaim, the breath of life, and Adam becomes a nefesh chayah, a living being, Onkelos and Rashi translate nefesh chayah to mean that Adam, unlike the other creatures, was now given the power of speech. Ironically, that which distinguishes us from the beast is often debased and used for beastly and hurtful purposes. Therefore the pervasive warnings about utilizing this Godly power. Because it is so potent, “motza sefasecha tishmor” (Devarim 23:24) “carefully watch the emanations of your lips.” Therefore, “lo yachel devaro,” “do not profane words” (Bamidbar 30:3). Koheles 10:20 puts it starkly: “Of hashamayim yolich es haKol, uba’al kenafayim yagid davar,” “The bird of the air transmits the sound, and the winged creature relates your speech. ” (Is this the origin of “a little birdie told me”?) And Rashi at Berachot 8b makes it explicit: “Aznaim lakotel,” “The wall has ears.” It is not happenstance that of the Ten Commandments, two deal with the power of speech: Do not speak God’s Name in vain, and do not bear false witness. And Pirkei Avos 5: 1 tells us that God formed the world through His own power of speech: “With ten utterances did He create the world. . . ”
However, the real reason we should be careful about what we say or write is not the fear that our nasty talk might ultimately be found out. Even if the walls did not have ears, even if winged creatures did not transmit our words, we must still be careful with what escapes our lips. Because evil speech—even if no one ever hears about it—harms not only others but ourselves in hidden but very real ways. It is detrimental to our spirits and to our souls. It demeans us and diminishes us as individuals. Consider: How can the same lips that utter prayers to God also utter blasphemies and obscenities? How can the same mouth that says Baruch Ata Hashem also say things that wound and hurt and destroy?
Beyond that, there is a positive benefit to careful speech. The Psalmist (34:14) offers a prescription for those who desire life: “netzor leshoncha mera usefosecha midaber mirma,” “guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking guile.” An evil tongue includes gossip, slander, vile language, vulgarity, coarseness, profanity, falsehood, or using hurtful words. The elixir of life is to keep our lips pure and unsullied. It gives us serenity and calm that is the guarantor of a good life. Pure lips and a pure tongue—which means using speech to comfort, guide, teach and pray—create a pure soul and a healthful body unsullied by envy and hatred and distrust and suspicion that poison life and, like poison, shorten it.
But it is not only individuals who are affected by loose words. All of society is. We live in a global village where words have become almost meaningless, where with a click one can send toxic rhetoric around the world in seconds, where technology has made it possible to advertise oneself unabashedly (Twitter, YouTube, Facebook), where the manic use of instantaneous communication has stifled careful thought and civil discourse, where malevolent and not benevolent speech is the norm, where everyone has a megaphone and everyone is a broadcaster who has nothing to say and keeps on saying it.
WikiLeaks has caused great harm and embarrassment. But it bears in its wake an important lesson: human speech comes with a warning sign: Caution! Dangerous!
Handle With Care!
Moral of the story: After all is said and done, mother is, of course, always right.
Rabbi Emanuel Feldman served as rabbi in Atlanta for forty years, is the former editor of Tradition magazine, and is an op-ed columnist for the Jerusalem Post. He has taught at Emory University and at Bar-Ilan University, and is the author of nine books, most recent of which is Tales Out of Jerusalem (Jerusalem, 2010).