Last week, in these pages, we discussed the niggun of the Torah and Jewish speech in general. This week, we will focus on the power of the words of themselves.
In the parshiyos of the past two weeks, we had several references to the importance of speech. One of the most famous translations of Targum Onkelos is when the posuk states “And man became a living being” (2:7). The Targum renders this as “a speaking creature.” This conveys the fact that man’s essence lies in his ability to communicate.
The commentaries to Derech Hashem also (see Uvo Sidbak edition, page 94, note 67) teach that “man’s primary form is that of one who speaks. This can only be obtained from others, for that is what connects him to the rest of humanity.”
In Parshas Noach, we learned that “every living being… came out of the Ark by their families” (8:19). Rashi comments that the word “families” indicates that all the animals committed themselves to remain with their own species.
Rav Yerucham Levovitz zt”l (Daas Torah, Noach, page 55) is troubled by the term “kiblu – committed themselves.” How could animals “make a kabbolah”? He explains that in the animal world, an action is considered a commitment, while for human beings this is formulated only in words. This, too, appears to be rooted in man’s essence being defined as his power of speech.
Further in Parshas Noach, we also learned that Hashem decided about the Dor Haflagah, “Let us descend and confuse their language” (11:6). The Sefas Emes (5656) explains that “the gist of man is his speech. Since their intentions were not proper, they lost the power to communicate.”
All of this reveals to us how important words and their meanings are to mankind. Interestingly, this past week, a prominent gentile theologian wrote an article titled “We Need to Talk about G-d” (The New York Times Sunday Review, October 14, 2018). Jonathan Merritt bemoaned the fact that “most Americans do not often have spiritual or religious conversations.” He speaks of “a decline in religious language and a decrease in spiritual conversations” and concludes that “we must work together to revive sacred speech and rekindle confidence in the vocabulary of faith.” Do we have a similar issue or are we immune to this problem?
At first glance, we Torah Jews (Rav Mordechai Gifter zt”l disdained the term “Orthodox”) would seem to be doing very well. We daven three times a day, learn Torah often, and profess a vocabulary that is replete with phrases from Torah sources. However, there is often a serious dichotomy between what seem to be two distinct groups. Some people are quite religious; others are quite spiritual. However, they do not always seem to be members of the same flock. I know people who are extremely scrupulous about halacha and minhag Yisroel, but somehow don’t seem very spiritual. They are not overly excited about their Yiddishkeit, not profoundly knowledgeable about the depths of the mitzvos they perform so meticulously, and seem rather blasé about their religion. On the other hand, there are those who are not quite nizhar in the details of the Torah but are ardent and even passionate about Judaism as they understand it, often missing some of the most fundamental details of each mitzvah they perform with such zeal.
For various reasons, I will not address the latter group at this time. But it would be worthwhile to examine whether or not we who consider ourselves bnei Torah are truly being the spiritual people we are supposed to be.
To give some context, let us review an ancient takanah from the days of the shoftim. When Boaz met the harvesters, he greeted them with the words “Hashem be with you” (Rus 2:4). Chazal (Brachos 54a) teach that Boaz established the halacha that we may invoke the name of Hashem (Shalom) in a greeting (Shabbos 10b). The Malbim explains that Boaz recognized that his generation was insufficiently careful about the laws of honesty and in general lawlessly “judged their judges.” He therefore instituted that people should greet each other with the word “Shalom,” which not only means peace and is one of Hashem’s names, but is a reminder of Hashem’s constant providence and concern that people should get along and be at peace with each other (see also Ohel Dovid to Rus).
In a way, we truly embody this idea by the way we incorporate references to Hashem in our everyday language. We all often reiterate boruch Hashem, im yirtzeh Hashem and be’ezras Hashem in our daily speech. However, does this really connect us to Hashem sufficiently? Boruch Hashem (yes, it is indeed a wonderful statement), we have many books today that remind us of Hashem’s Hashgocha Protis, helping us recognize Hashem’s very personal involvement in every aspect of our lives. We bentch Gomel after every overseas trip and make a seudas hoda’ah for various refuos and yeshuos. But do we remember to verbally give our Creator credit for the ostensibly smaller things in life, such as ongoing daily health, moments of nachas from a child or grandchild, even the ability to breathe, walk – and yes, talk? We no longer, like Boaz, who was also known as Ivtzan the Shofet, have the ability to make takanos. But surely we will become much more spiritual Jews if we mention Hashem more often in our conversations, helping ourselves and others remember that Hashem is indeed involved in our lives. Perhaps part of the reason for some people’s apparent apathy and even lethargy toward Yiddishkeit is the lack of a pressing connection to the Source of it all, our Creator Himself.
On an even more delicate level, there is a lesson from this week’s sedra about words that are left improperly unsaid. When Hagar looks down upon Sorah Imeinu because she has conceived whereas Sorah had not yet been so blessed, Sorah speaks to Avrohom Avinu. “Chamosi alecha – The outrage against me is due to you” (16:5), she declares. Rashi explains that her anguish stemmed from the fact that Avrohom had heard her humiliation and was silent. The Sochatchover Rebbe zt”l (Sheim MiShmuel) concludes that “refraining from speaking out when necessary is called chamas – an outrage.” We must know when to speak and when to be silent, a decision that requires the greatest insight and sagacity.
Rav Avigdor Miller zt”l (Ohr Avigdor to Chovos Halevavos, page 318) conveys a similar idea in his translation and commentary to Rabbeinu Bachya: “By means of speech, covenants are made between people. These include bonds of friendship, social alliances, business arrangements and contracts… Also, by means of speech, covenants are made between G-d and those who serve Him… If we didn’t speak to Hashem, all the thoughts would be smothered within us. But by speaking, these thoughts are transferred into reality. Words are reality and they bring us close to Hashem.”
I remember many years ago hearing Rav Miller make a suggestion that is actually easier now in our generation. Advocating that one speak to Hashem directly – not just through the formal words of prayer – he noted that many people were embarrassed to simply speak to Hashem. He advised that people go into a car and “speak loudly to the Creator when no one is listening.” Today, with the universal use of cell phones, everyone looks like they are talking to themselves, so one appears unbalanced when speaking to our Father in heaven.
Finally, as I have advocated in these pages before, I believe that we need to increase shiurim in our schools and shuls on hashkafah, biur tefillah and subjects that give meaning to the mitzvos we do and the prayers we utter. We are living in an age when no one wants to do things that are meaningless to them, even if they have inherited them from their parents and grandparents. The sad phenomenon of those who have left the fold can no longer be ignored and is, in fact, being addressed forcefully and courageously in many circles.
One way for each of us to begin in our own sphere of influence is to follow the lead of Boaz. We should not be shy about mentioning Hashem’s role in our lives and our excitement to be performing a mitzvah, making a siyum or even making a brocha. It would help immensely if we could each speak easily of the significance and inner meaning of daily religious actions to our friends and relatives. As the Sheim MiShmuel taught us, silence when speech is imperative is also an outrage.
I do not believe that we have the same problem as Mr. Merritt. But nor are we immune to dispassion and indifference to the most important things in our lives – avodas Hashem and the simchas hachaim that comes from knowing that Hashem loves us and cares about everything we do.
Let’s talk about Hashem and to Hashem with excitement and passion, bringing our children along on a wave of beautiful and eloquent words and deeds.