Life is so expensive these days but we took some comfort in thinking that at least the air we breathe is free. And then came along the Coronavirus with its cruel ability to asphyxiate its victims and we are painfully reminded that breathing is a gift and a very expensive one at that with ventilators costing thousands to build and even more to use. You see my friends, breathing was never a freebie to do with as we please; it comes with great responsibility and accountability. For certain, man cannot count his every breath in order to display his appreciation of them. But how one uses one’s life and speech, which those breaths afford us, says a lot. There are no words without the breath that carries them forth. So I must ask: What have you been talking about? Have you made talk cheap?
The power of speech is so mighty that God created the world not with His hands but with ten utterances: “And G-d said, ‘Let there be light,'” etc.(1:3) With love and great aspirations, G-d breathed life into our mouths and gave man alone the ability to speak and yet with that very same vessel we spew hate, mischief, curses and falsehoods. We use the very tools He used to build the world, to destroy it. The Talmud states that every word which issues from our mouths, whether good, evil, by mistake, or on purpose, is written in a book. They never disappear even though we plead with our interlocutor to not repeat what we said. So please tell me, with the stakes so high, from all the role models in the Torah, from Moses to Queen Esther, why would you want to emulate the snake whose venomous tongue brought down mankind?
In last week’s article I wrote how Adam’s eating the forbidden fruit diminished his physical and spiritual beauty. In this week’s Torah readings we learn how talking slander about people can you make you ugly. The punishment for it is a skin disease called tzarat (miscalled, leprosy). The Talmud says that even when the Messiah comes and all people and animals will be healed of disease and the impure will be made pure, the snake whose scaly skin which actually is leprosy, will not be healed because of his evil words. In this Parasha we also read that it is the duty of the Kohanim, the priestly spiritual leaders, to evaluate the skin diseases of the people, not doctors. Why you ask? Because its cause is spiritual, not medical. There is no suffering, our rabbis teach, without sin. “Plagues only affect a person on account of the evil speech which comes out of his mouth” (Talmud). We must look at our punishment and see how it fits the crime. Covid-19—It’s breathtaking!
Words never die! We are taught in a Midrash that when Moses smashed the first set of tablets indeed the tablets were destroyed but the words and letters that were upon them, they lived, and they all flew back up to heaven (Jerusalem Talmud, Taanit 4:5). So detrimental is the misuse of words that we see in the Book of Psalms how King David praises God and says “Arise, O Lord, save me, my G-d, for You have struck all my enemies on the cheek; You have broken the teeth of the wicked.” (2:8) Of all things, why would David be happy G-d broke the teeth of the wicked? Wouldn’t he be happier if He broke their necks? And the answer is that teeth are necessary to speak and to curse and to galvanize armies and stir up hatred. But teeth also allow people to pronounce blessings and prayers. And that is exactly what G-d is waiting for and wanting from us. He wants us to pray to Him when we have a problem, not to verbally sabotage the person who may have given it to us; he wants us to bless the food we eat and the lives we live not curse humanity for our perceived injustices; don’t cuss, don’t slander, don’t be a yenta. “You shall not go around as a gossip monger amidst your people (Leviticus 19:16). Use your breaths as if your life depended on them, because it does.
So my dear friends, what are you talking about? I know when someone calls me and asks me, “So have you heard the latest?” I know we are not off to a healthy start. If all your friendships revolve around gossiping about others, perhaps it’s time to question who your friends are. If today they yap about others be sure that tomorrow they will talk about you. When’s the last time you walked away from a conversation smarter than when you started, more inspired and motivated? Do your friends make you better people or vile and base? It’s time to question your life’s purpose. Are you a creator or a destroyer? Life and death are in the tongue. If you don’t believe that words have power, then why bother praying on Yom Kippur at all, or anytime for that matter? You wouldn’t use your finest crystal classes to gather a urine sample. So why use the same mouth you use to pray also for despicable, undignified and sinful speech.
I know it’s not easy to stop and that being a yenta ironically is as contagious as the plagues it causes. But we are better than that. How can we not be? G-d made us! Remember the simple advice we’ve all been told, “Think before you speak.” Save your breath, guard your words, watch your mouth and remember most things are better left unsaid.