Thursday, May 30, 2024

A Word for the Wise

As usual, something strange is happening on American campuses. They seem to have discovered that words can hurt and cause permanent damage. Like Lisa Feldman, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, they are asking questions such as, “When Is Speech Violent?” the title of an article in last week’s New York Times Sunday Review section. The author proves scientifically that the “body’s immune system includes little proteins called proinflammatory cytokines.” These can cause inflammation when a person is physically injured or is under chronic stress, such as from harmful speech.

Unfortunately, unlike – lehavdil – the Chofetz Chaim zt”l, who came to this conclusion a century ago and developed a regimen of preventing lashon hara, modern universities have used this data in their own perverse way. They have adapted the idea that since telmomeres, genetic materials, shrink when under stress from certain speeches and cause damage, therefore, certain unwanted speeches, positions and philosophies should not be heard on the hallowed grounds of their colleges.

Although Professor Feldman recognized that this reaction has obviously clashed with “professed defenders of free speech,” she contends that while “it is reasonable, scientifically speaking, not to allow [certain loathsome people] to speak at your school,” other objectionable speakers may be allowed.

Of course, as we all know, these kinds of distinctions have recently been trotted out singularly to outlaw those who defend the State of Israel and condemn Palestinian violence, while fully allowing the lies and distortions of Israel’s enemies. Yet, if we are willing to celebrate a shred of truth in the midst of all the campus prevarications, we must be pleased to hear the recognition that “speech violence” is now an accepted scientifically proven fact, even if misapplied and misappropriated.

For us, it is of course both ironic and poignant that this has arrived at our doorstep during the Three Weeks. As we reflect upon the churban of each of the Botei Mikdosh, we invariably think of the power of speech. The second Bais Hamikdosh was destroyed because of sinas chinom, baseless hatred (Yoma 9b), and this is inexorably bound with hate speech as well.

In truth, the use of language goes to the very heart of who we are. The Kuzari enumerates the four types of existence: domeim, the inanimate, tzomeiach, the vegetative, chai, the animal world, and medaber, human beings. He then charges us with representing an even higher realm of life, teaching that being a Yisroel means that we are generically and totally different.

That distinction is defined for us in the Yom Tov Shemoneh Esrei: “You have chosen us from all the peoples… veromamtanu mikol haleshonos – and You exalted us above all the tongues.” This means that not only do we speak in Lashon Hakodesh, the holy language, but that our mode of speech, what we say and how we say it, is holy as well. We will soon learn in Daf Yomi (Sanhedrin 23a) that Jews are expected to have a peh kadosh, a holy mouth, and through the ages (see Ran, beginning of Nedarim about Rabbeinu Tam), Torah giants referred to each other with the appellation “peh kadosh.”

The Chasam Sofer (Drashos to Bereishis 33:18) quotes the posuk that describes when Yaakov Avinu is leaving the house of Lavan: “Vayavo Yaakov sholeim.” The last word is an acronym for sheim, he kept his Jewish name, lashon, he kept his language intact, and malbush, he kept his Jewish mode of dress. Here, too, explains the Chasam Sofer, it surely does not just mean a particular tongue or idiom. It means that Yaakov Avinu did not pick up Lavan’s evil speech pattern, whether nivul peh, lashon hara, rechilus or other forms of elocution. As one of the major examples of maaseh avos siman labonim, that the actions of the patriarchs act as harbingers for later generations (see Meshech Chochmah, beginning of Shemos), Yaakov Avinu embodied the distinctions that Klal Yisroel has always maintained from the rest of the world.

How important is it to be vigilant about our words? Shlomo Hamelech teaches us that “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Mishlei 18:21). Even one word can kill or heal.

Rav Mordechai Neugroschel relates an amazing story told to him by a veteran speaker from Russia. She was about to give a presentation about the importance of avoiding lashon hara. As soon as she introduced her topic, a woman interrupted her with the sharp objection, “Who needs this anyway?” Although the lecturer had prepared assiduously, her notes organized, her PowerPoints in perfect order, she was so flustered that she could barely concentrate on her discourse. Instead of the hour of material she had prepared, she sat down dejected at her failed drosha after just twenty minutes. To her surprise, the woman next to her thanked her profusely for her eloquent words and expressed gratitude for opening her eyes to this subject. She was even more astounded when she realized that this was the same woman who had so brazenly demanded, “Who needs this anyway?”

The lecturer stared at her tormentor in shock. “Can you be the same person who rejected my entire presentation from the first moment and now you are praising me?”

Now it was the woman in the audience’s turn to be surprised. “Me?” she responded. “I rejected you? G-d forbid! This topic is extremely important to me and your presentation was excellent.”

Now the Russian speaker was truly perplexed. “But you yelled out, ‘Who needs this anyway?’”

The answer finally made everything clear. “I meant the fan. It’s a beautiful day and the fan was making noise. I was afraid I wouldn’t hear you properly. I wanted them to shut off the fan.”

Five words (in Hebrew: mi tzarich es zeh bichlal) ruined her entire shmuess.

Furthermore, since it was being recorded, streamed and distributed to thousands of people worldwide, there were no do-overs available. The woman felt that this had not been the high powered inspirational talk she had planned to give. Even worse, everyone listening, all of whom were unaware of the actual circumstances, would hear the dismissive words, “Who needs this anyway?”

As Dovid Hamelech says of evil speech, “[You are like] the sharp arrows of the mighty” (Tehillim 120:4). The Medrash there likens lashon hara to arrows. What is the analogy? Many meforshim answer that it is because even a drawn sword can be returned to its scabbard, but an arrow, once it has been loosed from its bow, cannot be taken back.

Words that have caused pain, as even the Times has discovered, cannot be nullified.

The Alter of Slabodka once exclaimed that people make a mistake about free will. They think that man is defined by his ability to choose to do what he wishes. On the contrary, says the great mechanech. Man is defined and in fact glorified by his ability to choose not to act, to refrain from doing something that he wants very much to do. He will instead abstain purely because he knows that it is wrong. The same is true of the power of speech. Indeed, man is defined by his ability to communicate. But his greatness is achieved more by engaging in silence than by speaking.

Actually, the dog barks, the lion roars, the donkey brays, but only man can choose to be silent. Not only is silence a way of attaining wisdom (Pirkei Avos 3:17) and “even a fool who is silent is considered wise” (Mishlei 17:28), but the world stands because of one who controls his mouth, remains silent, and avoids a quarrel (Chulin 89a).

Imagine if Kamtza had swallowed hard and kept his mouth shut. If only the meraglim had said nothing. In fact, if only Adam and Chava had not heeded the evil entreaties of the primordial serpent, our entire world would be significantly better.

In fact, each one of us, whatever our formal profession, actually has an even higher calling. The Gemara (Chulin 89a) asks, “What is a person’s profession in this world? He should render himself ke’ileim, like a mute.” Why does the Gemara use the term umnaso, profession? Why not tell us simply that this is an important middah? Chazal are clearly teaching us that silence is both an art and an occupation that must be studied, practiced, honed and developed. As the Gemara implies, it is ultimately our only profession, for all else pales by comparison.

A famous parable is helpful to concretize this lesson. Shlomo Hamelech (Koheles 5:1) wisely teaches us the power of words: “Be not rash with your mouth, and let not your heart be hasty to utter a word before G-d, for G-d is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few.”

The Taalumos Chochmah offers the moshol. A king had a favorite map of his realm that was painstakingly drawn for him by his best cartographer. A servant noticed what he thought was a smudge and erased it, thinking he would earn the king’s gratitude. Instead, he ignited the king’s wrath. “You fool,” the king thundered. “Don’t you realize that every dot on that precious document – what you called a smudge – represents a city? You, in effect, destroyed thousands of homes, individuals and all that they have built in my domain.”

We, living here on earth, don’t realize the ramifications and power of every word we utter. However, Hashem, whose perspective is in heaven, sees and evaluates every word and action with total accuracy, and knows the consequences of every word. It therefore behooves us to think carefully before we say anything, and the less we say, the better.

The Chazon Ish was once asked why he speaks so little and absolutely never gives speeches. After all, it is clear from his brilliant works that he has much to say. The great sage answered that a woman’s status can radically be altered with nine simple words. Before her husband uttered, “Harei at mekudeshes li betabaas zu kedaas Moshe veYisroel,” she was not married. After these few words, she and a man with whom she transgresses can be executed. “So why should I not be careful with my words?” concluded the Chazon Ish.

Perhaps we should all worry more about our speech than speeches and watch our words during these Three Weeks, so that this year, G-d willing, on Tisha B’Av, we can speak happily of the restoration of the Bais Hamikdosh.



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