The Art of Speech

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Speech Bubbles
06 Apr 2011

We speak, therefore we exist.

When a newly elected member of Parliament approached the esteemed British Prime Minister Disraeli for advice, Disraeli was only too happy to share some profound wisdom and insight. “For the first six months,” Disraeli counseled, “you should only listen and not become involved in debate.”

The man was perplexed. “But my colleagues will wonder why I do not speak!” the man sputtered in protest. Disraeli considered the man for only a moment more before responding, “better they should wonder why you do not, than why you do.”

How true were Disraeli’s words! How often our silence resonates more profoundly than our words! In music, it is the balance of notes and rests which create the melody. A song of unrelenting notes is often little more than noise. So too, a man of only words and not silences is little more than empty wind.

Yet, if all we are is rests and silences, we are without substance. For, while it is true that all creatures communicate, it is our ability to speak which distinguishes us and raises us above all other forms of creation. Without speech, only the most basic needs can be communicated. With speech, we can create and glory in art, in poetry, in worship and prayer. Speech is that which epitomizes the Divine gift inherent in each of us.
“… And He breathed into his nostrils the breath of life…”

The Targum translates, l’ruach memamela, “to a communicative, speaking being.” That is, our ability to communicate through speech best characterizes the living soul within us. Our bodies, as Yishayahu the prophet exclaimed, are mere physical entities. “All flesh is grass…The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our G-d shall stand forever.” We, like grass, wither. But our words, the power of our speech stand forever.

Speech is power. And with power comes danger. It should come as no surprise then that of all possible human transgressions, the one punishable with tz’aras is the sin of lashon ha’rah – evil speech.

Resh Lakish does not mince words. Referring to the law of metzora he says, “This shall be the law of he who spreads evil talk” (mozi shem ra) One who is guilty of lashon ha’ra forfeits the mantle of spirituality from his being. What is he left with? Just his afflicted and “diseased” physical existence.

A medical doctor can treat leprosy, but only a kohen brings to bear gifts that can realign and rebalance the physical and spiritual aspects of man. The Mishna in Negaim teaches that the ultimate cure for the metzora comes about through the verbal pronouncement of tahor uttered by the kohen. Just as the spiritual imbalance was the result of evil talk, its cure can only be realized through the “pure” talk. As the prophet Malachi declared, “For the kohen’s lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek Torah at his mouth.”

The cure required for the evil talker brings back into alignment the physical and spiritual natures of man. The Torah demands that the leper offer “two living clean birds” for his purification to repent for his idle chatter, “for birds continually chatter and chirp.” He must bring cedar wood because the cedar is symbolic of haughtiness and pride, both manifest in his idle and meaningless talk. He must immerse himself in running water. As the Sefer HaChinuch elaborates, “The immersion in water symbolizes that the unclean person is recreated at that moment, just as the world consisted wholly of water at creation, before man came into the world. The renewal effected on his body will prompt him to a reappraisal of his own conduct.”

To use the gift of speech for evil is a terrible transgression. To use it for good is a great blessing. Our noblest expression of spirituality is found in our daily need to pray. To pray wholly is to transcend the physical self; to climb above the work of our hands and to surpass the product of our minds. Prayer is “an act of self purification, quarantine for the soul. It gives us the opportunity to be honest, to say what we believe, and to stand for what we say.”

“The acceptance of the spirit is prayer.”

Our prayer is made possible by our ability to speak. Yet, even in prayer, the blessing and danger of speech is evident. As we enter into prayer, we cry to G-d, “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall declare Your praise.”

We are raised by our prayer. Made more whole. And yet, even after we have uttered our prayer we must guard against the possibility that our words were false, self-serving, and insincere. And so we conclude every prayer with a simple request, “Guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking guile.”
Would that those words were forever in our hearts and at our lips!

If they cannot be, better that we choose silence. For our silence will serve our better angels more than any words we might speak.

Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran serves as OU Kosher’s Vice President of Communications & Marketing.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.