In dramatic fashion, the Talmud describes the powerful impact of one's speech: "Even a heavenly decree for seventy years of good can be reversed if one perverts his mouth with improper speech" (Tractate Ketubot 8b).
In dramatic fashion, the Talmud describes the powerful impact of one's speech: "Even a heavenly decree for seventy years of good can be reversed if one perverts his mouth with improper speech" (Tractate Ketubot 8b). Speech plays an important role in this week's portion of Mattot. The portion begins with a discussion of the laws of nedarim (vows) and the accompanying ability of a person to create new conditions and serious consequences as a result of his speech.
Moreover, when the Torah relates how Bilam, the gentile prophet, was killed in the battle with Midian, the verse specifies that he was killed by the sword (Numbers 31:8). Rashi, the fundamental Torah commentator, observes that in attempting to curse the Jewish people, Bilam had exchanged the gentile's strength of military might for the strength of the Jewish nation - speech. As expressed by Isaac, "The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau." The Jews knew the secret to their success in battle was through their power of prayer. Bilam sought to turn the tables by using his ability of speech to curse the Jewish nation. However, Bilam's strength was rightfully in the power of the sword, as Isaac blessed Esau that "by your sword you shall live." Therefore, Hashem allowed the Jewish people to retaliate by utilizing the sword to kill Bilam.
The Chofetz Chaim, the saintly leader of world Jewry at the beginning of this century, points out that one sees from here how vital it is for the Jew to properly direct his speech. Just as a warrior would not go into battle without his weapons properly prepared, similarly we cannot go through life without using our speech in a positive manner. Furthermore, the Chofetz Chaim refers us to the prophet Isaiah (51:16) who says that through one's speech worlds can be fashioned. Our rabbis have explained that by using one's speech properly one creates spiritual worlds and angels in the upper realms, certainly a matter not to be taken lightly. Therefore, we have an obligation to take good care of our spiritual arms and weapons by guarding our tongues from lashon hara and forbidden speech.
This point is further elucidated by the Talmud (Tractate Chulin 89a) in its presentation of a verse in Psalms (58:2) which seems contradictory. The first part of the verse suggests that one should behave as a mute and the latter part of the verse states "righteousness you shall speak." To resolve this difficulty, the sages explain that for useful purposes such as Torah study and kind words, speech is an admirable quality. But if it is to be used in a harmful manner one is better served as a mute.
The great lesson that we can learn from here is the tremendous challenge which Hashem has charged us with. Through the same mouth one can cause G-d to reverse a heavenly-intended blessing or one can use it for prayer and Torah study to create angels in the upper realms. Hashem has given us a powerful tool; let us be sure to use it properly.
Moshe Freundlich, who hails from Atlanta, is a rising junior at the Yeshiva Beis Moshe in Scranton, Pennsylvania.
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