"And these are the words that Moses spoke to all of Israel in the Trans-jordan. . .",(Deuteronomy 1:1).
"And these are the words that Moses spoke to all of Israel in the Trans-jordan. . .",(Deuteronomy 1:1).
So begins one of the longest soliloquies in the Torah fraught with hidden meaning and stern rebuke by our greatest leader ever. This portion begins the final words that Moses tells the nation after years of carefully guiding them, and it is these words that are intended to carry them through the long years ahead of conquering and inhabiting Israel. The first Midrash on this section, though, tells us two interesting points based on this first verse that are seemingly unrelated to the fiery rebuke that follows.
The Midrash begins with a verse from Proverbs, which states that "the tongue (or language) is healed by the tree of life (Torah)." The Midrash elaborates on this concept in relationship to our verse by first telling us that from the extra words in the verse "these are the words" we learn that Moses made all of his statements clearly understood to the Jewish people of all generations. He did this by translating the Torah into all seventy languages (i.e. he healed these languages with Torah). A second item the Midrash tells us is that from this verse, and the verses that follow in the Torah portion, we see the tremendous power of the Torah because until this point Moses had great difficulty speaking, as is evidenced by his conversation with Hashem at the burning bush. Now, however, the Midrash tells us that once the Torah was given, Moses was able to speak quite eloquently, as is evidenced in the portions that follow. Although Moses spoke profusely before this portion, our sages tell us that it was because Hashem spoke from Moses’ throat. Now Moses, although basing his words on Divine prophecy, spoke with his own power spirited by the giving of the Torah. What is the connection between these two points and the rest of the Torah portion? Moreover, what is the connection between the giving of the Torah and the restoration of speech?
Before delving into these points we must first understand the power of speech in general. One of the greatest sins is the sin of speech. Seen as one of the most unique human abilities, the ability to communicate in a creative, constantly evolving fashion is perhaps one of the most obvious differences between ourselves and the animal kingdom. Yet, it is because this is one of our greatest potential strengths that it can become one our greatest faults if used improperly. The sin of lashon hara (evil language) represents the entire gamut of improper speech, including name calling, verbally hurting others’ feelings, slander, and gossip.
However, it is interesting to note the wording used by our sages to describe this transgression: evil language (lashon can translate into either tongue or language). Why not call it evil words or speech (dibbur ra) instead of evil language? Perhaps this can be understood in light of what someone said about a great rebbetzin; that throughout her whole life one never heard a word of lashon hara from her even though she was not well versed in the intricate laws of lashon hara. Instead, her skill at avoiding this grievous sin came because she simply did not see anything bad in other people. She certainly saw others doing less than desirable acts, but she did not interpret them as a sign of evil. Rather, she saw a person’s failure to behave correctly as a cry for help, a need for love, a misguided flame of Israel in need of refueling. Although one sees many negative actions done by others, the ability to label and describe them is completely in the hands of the observer. Each interpretation of events is an individual conscious or subconscious decision and determines how we view and, subsequently, describe the world to others.
If we can only see the opportunities for growth and the ability to help others in the actions performed around us it would be almost impossible to speak lashon hara. It is probably for this reason that it is called evil language instead of evil speech, because it is primarily our "language," used both internally and externally, that determines how we interpret events. Instead of seeing an evil and sinister person, we can see a lost and troubled person. As well, once our interpretation and language of understanding people change, instead of commenting that someone is a nasty, ruthless person because of x, we will say that the person could sure use some help; I wonder if there’s anything we can do about it. Perhaps it is for this reason that language is named after the tongue, because before the tongue operates in speech there is only a stream of breath and vibration; and it is the tongue that first limits and thereby shapes that breath. Similarly, it is language that limits and molds the stream of information entering our senses into one label or description. Although this process is necessary for information assimilation, it is perhaps one of our most dangerous tools. As the Talmud (Tractate Baba Metzia 58b) tells us, that all descend into gehinnom (purgatory) and eventually ascend purified except one who calls another by a bad name (i.e. labels him negatively), with the intention of hurting that person.
Rabbeinu Bachya, a classic 14th century commentator, quotes the above-mentioned verse in Proverbs and interprets it slightly differently. He explains that the verse can also be read "the tongue (or language) is a healer, it is a tree of life." He follows this with an elaboration on the power of human language. He explains that language is the most important salve of all, because although a person may become physically ill, he can often maintain his health psychologically with the proper mindset and spirit. However, when a person feels broken psychologically, hopeless, and depressed, illnesses creep in more efficiently and wreak much greater havoc. This, he explains, is the power of language, because with communication a person can help others rebuild their spirit with a few kind and encouraging words that could bring a person from the brink of disaster. Conversely, improper language in the form of scorn, embarrassment, and ill-will can send a person to the pits psychologically, rendering him vulnerable to many diseases. It is communication and outside support that serve as the final gatekeepers of good health after one’s physical needs have been met. He continues, that on a spiritual level, as well, the tongue is an extremely powerful tool, because if used correctly it can bring a fellow human soul under the wings of the Divine presence. This is represented by the statement of the Talmud (Tractate Baba Batra 16b) that Abraham had a precious jewel hanging around his throat which, Rabbeinu Bachya explains, represents his well-used capability of speech by which he brought many into the fold of believing in G-d. How powerful and precious speech truly is.
How can we guide our speech and language to the perfection it is capable of? The answer lies in the Midrash we first quoted. The verse quoted states "the healer of the tongue is the tree of life" the Torah. It is through studying how the Torah conveys ideas and how it presents communication between Man and G-d and the leaders of Israel to the Jewish people in various situations, that we are taught how communication should and must be used. It is for this reason that the Torah was translated into all seventy languages. Our sages teach us that all seventy languages have a certain aspect of impurity within them. How ideas are conveyed, what words connote, and the sound of each language have a certain character, part of which is impure. The Torah, on the other hand uses only words that are designed to further bring holiness and understanding of Hashem’s will in the world. Therefore, when translated into other languages it brings out only the best of each language.
In a similar vein, the Midrash continues that Moses had difficulty communicating both physically and in his ability to bring his message convincingly home to his listeners. However, with the giving of the Torah, his speech became eloquent and powerful because the Torah served as a guide for the perfection of language. Also, since everything from Hashem operates at all levels of human existence, he became healed physically as well. On a similar note, the Talmud (Tractate Arachin 15b) quotes this same verse from Proverbs and explains that it is Torah that heals lashon hara, because it presents the very ideal of communication, and the very ideal of understanding the events that constantly surround us.
These thoughts become especially pertinent in this week’s Torah portion, which is one of the greatest at-length communications in the Torah from our most revered leader. This is especially important here because it is now that Moses is coming to rebuke the nation and sum up the various pleasant and unpleasant experiences in the desert, a difficult task to present properly in a way that will guide the nation through many years to come. Therefore, it is here that his language and means of communication become an especially crucial and important lesson for us all. The Ramban, one of the leading Torah scholars of the Middle Ages, comments on this verse that Moses presented his rebuke in a language that conveyed two key ideas to the Jewish people. Firstly, they must be wary of the temptations of sin, because G-d is constantly watching and keeping them on the straight path, and although Divine discipline when they leave the desert will be less immediate and noticeable, they must remember its force from their days in the desert. Yet, the Ramban explains, on the other hand, Moses was communicating to the Jewish people that although they may stray and disobey Hashem, He will have mercy on them. He will always steadily and patiently await their return to Him.
What a powerful communication both encouragement and discipline, both the awe and love of G-d in such powerful, yet simple words. Perhaps we should all pay close attention to the words of Moses in the following portions and the words of our sages who so beautifully expound upon them, and we will begin to understand the power and beauty inherent in the language we use and our perception of the difficulties that befall us. If only we can learn from Moses how to see both the loving and firm hand that Hashem has upon us, and learn how to communicate that with others; if only we could see the faults of others as points of growth, as Moses did, and learn how to teach and encourage that to others, how much happier the world would become. Perhaps then we will merit hearing the direct communication of G-d once again, through the Messiah and Elijah the prophet, may they come speedily in our days.
Cortell, an alumnus of Yeshiva Atlanta is studying at the Yeshiva of
Greater Washington and the University of Maryland.
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