Today is August 21, 2018 -

Parashat Behaalotekha – 2 June 2018/19 Sivan 5778

Sermon – Controlling Our Words

 

Words matter. They entertain. They shape our thoughts. They transmit our ideas to others. They lead to war. And back to peace. 

Words also are used to mislead. They are used to misrepresent.

They are used to wound. And they can be used to heal.

Words – symbolic language – separates us from other living things. 

One of the few things that we control as human beings is our language. Some control better than others! We need only reflect on the recent words of Roseanne Barr and Samantha Bee. Two people who use words to made a living. Two people who should have known better before sharing their inappropriate words publicly. Two people who have apologized after the fact. Only one of them had her show canceled.

You likely know the Hasidic story of the man who apologized to the rabbi after having slandered him for years. The rabbi told the man to bring a feather pillow, cut it open and throw the feathers into the swirling wind. And he tells the man, “When you have gathered every single one of the feathers I will forgive you. Like feathers in the wind, it is virtually impossible to retrieve them once uttered.

The power of words – and their danger – is that, once they are released into the public, we no longer own them or control them. We cannot control how (or if) others hear or interpret them. [In this sense they are like weapon of mass destruction!] We cannot control how they are repeated [telephone game]. We cannot control how they are used by others [gossip, quotations].

Our parasha has much to say about the power of language. At the end of the parasha, Miriam and Aaron speak against their brother, Moses. They are critical of their brother for marrying “a Cushite woman.” For this, Miriam is afflicted with tzaraat – white scales, often called “leprosy.” 

Why should Miriam be punished so for her words of criticism? Was she not a neviah – a prophetess, the sister of Moses and Aaron? Perhaps especially because she is such a public figure, she is held particularly liable for her libel.

The question is not one of evil thoughts. (Though it is important to try to control our thoughts, particularly when they are self-destructive or when they keep us from acting in ways we know we should act.) 

The question that Torah addresses is what happens when those thoughts are given voice. What happens when our ideas and opinions are spoken or written – and when one or more persons hears/reads them? Now we have moved from evil thoughts to evil speech, lashon ha-ra.

This passage at the end of this week’s parasha represents, for the Rabbis, one of the central statements in Torah regarding lashon ha-ra, evil speech.

Our tradition has much to say about lashon ha-ra.[i]

The Encyclopedia Judaica defines lashon ha-ra as

the prohibition against slandering, slurring, or defaming one’s fellow Jews, even when the derogatory remarks
are true. The sages constantly stressed the severity of this prohibition, asserting that slander destroys three
persons: “he who relates the slander, he who accepts it, and he about whom it is told”. They recognized the
power of the spoken word to build or ruin human relationships, and considered the tongue the “elixir of life”
and the primary source of good and evil.

The Bible is replete with examples of righteous and wicked individuals who transgressed this prohibition.
Sarah is accused of slandering Abraham when she spoke about his advanced age and inability to beget children.
Joseph was punished for the “evil reports” he spread about his brothers. Miriam was rebuked by God for
slandering Moses. The spies were punished for their injurious reports concerning the Holy Land. The division
of the kingdom of David is attributed to his paying heed to slander.

The rabbis often emphasized the rigorous punishments for those engaging in “evil speech.” The Talmud
delineated the repentance for those wishing to atone for this sin. Mar, the son of Ravina, on concluding his daily
prayer added the following: “My God, keep my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking guile”, a formula
which has been added at the end of the Amidah. In modern times, Rabbi Israel Meir ha-Kohen (Hafez Hayyim)
gained wide recognition for his writings which stressed the gravity of the sin of lashon ha-ra.

In addition, the passage continues with the words v’li-m’kal’lai nafshi tidom – and may my soul be silent in response to those who curse me.

The Rabbis understood the power and the potential for harm in language. How hard it is to control our language (before we speak) – and what damage it causes once our words have escaped our lips. And further, how easy it is to be wounded by the language of others (even when the words were not intended to wound). 

It is difficult to control how words can harm us. But some can. And so it was that Moshe, after his sister was afflicted with tzaraat, prayed to God with the words we use today: El na refah na la – “Please God, please heal her.” As a humble man, he may have been deeply wounded by his sister’s words, but he found a way for his soul to be silent and for his lips to respond with words of healing.

This message is appropriate in the relationship between the Israelis and the Palestinians. This message is appropriate in our businesses. And especially in our families, where language is the primary weapon of choice, a weapon that can cause lasting harm, festering wounds, lack of self-esteem, anger, distrust, sadness, and temporary or permanent estrangement. 

Can we become more aware of how powerful our words are? Can we become more careful in our speech, in what words we allow to become public? And can we learn to calm our souls when the words of others sting?

I pray that we can [words recited silently after the conclusion of the silent Amidah]:

Elohai, n’tzor l’shoni mei’ra u’sefatai mi-dabeir mirmah, v’lim’kal’lai nafshi tidom – “My God, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking lies. And may my soul be silent in response to those who curse me.”

Ken yehi ratzon.  May this be God’s will. Ken yehi retzoneinu. May this be our will.


[i] LASHON HA-RA (Heb.  Arh     NvQl; lit. “evil speech”), the prohibition against slandering, slurring, or defaming one’s fellow Jews, even when the derogatory remarks are true (Lev. 19:16; Rashi ad. loc.). The sages constantly stressed the severity of this prohibition, asserting that slander destroys three persons: “he who relates the slander, he who accepts it, and he about whom it is told” (Ar. 15b). They recognized the power of the spoken word to build or ruin human relationships, and considered the tongue the “elixir of life” (Lev. R. 16:2) and the primary source of good and evil (Lev. R. 33:1). It was even considered forbidden to spread discreditable comments which the slanderer would have told to the person himself (Tos. to Ar. 15b).

The Bible is replete with examples of righteous and wicked individuals who transgressed this prohibition. Sarah is accused of slandering Abraham when she spoke about his advanced age and inability to beget children (Gen. 18:12–15; TJ, Pe’ah 1:1, 16a). Joseph was punished for the “evil reports” he spread about his brothers (Gen. 37:2; TJ, Pe’ah 1:1, 15d–16a). Miriam was rebuked by God for slandering Moses (Num. 12:1–15). The spies were punished for their injurious reports concerning the Holy Land (Num. 14:36–37). The division of the kingdom of David is attributed to his paying heed to slander (Shab. 56a–b). Doeg and Ahithophel were accused of constantly desiring to hear “evil speech” (TJ, loc. cit.). Jeroboam king of Israel (I Kings 12:20) was worthy of being counted together with the kings of Judah (Hos 1:1) because he did not give heed to slander against Amos (Amos 7:10–11; Pes. 87b). The murder of Isaiah by Manasseh was considered divine retribution for Isaiah’s slurs against the Jewish people (Isa. 6:5; Yev. 49b). Haman was considered the most skillful of all traducers (Meg. 13b). Indirect slander was also forbidden, and the sages cautioned a Shofgainst speaking in praise of a person lest one inevitably be led also to mention the person’s bad deeds and qualities (BB 164b). Equally objectionable under this heading is the implicit form of slander exemplified by the statement, “Do not speak of him; I want to know nothing about him,” in which one expresses a disinclination to listen, not because of a distaste for slander, but because of the implied unworthiness of the subject (see Maim. Yad, De’ot, 7:4). Although the hearer was cautioned not to believe slander, he still was permitted to safeguard himself cautiously lest the reports prove true (Nid. 61a). Defaming individuals who constantly caused strife and dissension is permissible (TJ, Pe’ah 1:1, 16a).

The rabbis often emphasized the rigorous punishments for those engaging in “evil speech.” They are immediately chastised by plagues (ARN 19); and rain is withheld because of them (Ta’an. 7b). Croup comes to the world on account of slander (Shab. 33a–b), and whoever makes derogatory remarks about deceased scholars is cast into Gehinnom (Ber. 19a). Slanderers will not enjoy the Shekhinah (Divine Presence; Sot. 42a), and a bearer of evil tales is considered as denying God (Ar. 15b). Whoever relates or accepts slander deserves to be cast to the dogs (Pes. 118a), and stoned (Ar. 15b). The Talmud delineated the repentance for those wishing to atone for this sin. Scholars were advised to engage in Torah study, while simple persons were urged to humble themselves (Ar. 15b). The robe of the high priest and the incense aided in achieving atonement for this sin (Zev. 88b). Mar, the son of Ravina, on concluding his daily prayer added the following: “My God, keep my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking guile” (Ber. 17a), a formula which has been added at the end of the Amidah. In modern times, Rabbi Israel Meir ha-Kohen (Hafez Hayyim) gained wide recognition for his writings which stressed the gravity of the sin of lashon ha-ra.

[Editorial Staff Encyclopaedia Judaica]