This weeks Torah portion, Haazinu (“Listen”), is about Moshe’s last address to the Israelites before he leaves this world, and the Rabbi in synagogue spoke about the importance of all of us using our speech properly, and these are some of my thoughts on this.
- Lessons on Improper and Proper Speech
The Rabbi told a story about someone who did an extreme social experiment and didn’t speak for 17 years to show the importance of listening over speaking. When he finally did speak, the Rabbi said that the man laughed at hearing the sound of his own voice. As children, many of us learn this basic lesson on using words sparingly and carefully, as we are taught to “speak half as much as we listen, and that’s why G-d gave us two ears and one mouth!”
Another similar lesson about being careful with our words comes from the saying “better to stay silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.” The power of our speech is one of the things that differentiate human beings from all other species. However words are powerful and it’s not just “sticks and stones may break my bones,” but as the Rabbi said, “words can surely harm us!”
Already King Solomon said (Proverbs 18:21), “Life and death are in the hands of the tongue.” I remember the story about the man’s tongue teaching him the lesson that it is the most important part of body by saying something to the king that almost got the man killed. Even though words are not tangible, they have huge power. Words that belittle, falsely accuse, spread lies, or hurt others can cause lasting pain and damage. That is why the Chofetz Chaim focused extensively on not speaking l’ashon harah (“evil speech”) and he is aptly named after the phrase (Psalms 34:13) “Who is the man that desires life (“hechofetz chaim”), who loves many days that he may see good? Guide your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking lies.”
- When To Speak Out
With all that being said about using our words sparingly and wisely, and not to hurt others or ourselves with our words, there is a time when we are obligated to speak out. When we see wrong and evil in this world, we have a duty to stand up and speak out with truth and integrity, to be a good influence and guide things for the better, and even to repair the world (“Tikkun Olam”). As we learn from the Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel who said, “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes, we must interfere.”
This week, I watched the video of the German gunman who tried to shoot his way into a synagogue in Halle. Over and over he shot at the bolted door, which miraculously kept him out from the 50 plus worshippers inside. I shared this video on Facebook, and was shocked to see that Facebook took it down. Why wouldn’t they want the world to see this fanatical anti-Semite trying to kill Jews on our holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, so the world can continue to learn the dangers of hate and racism, and try to become better from it. “Never again” means that never again will we be silent in the face of evil, whether or not Facebook or others try to silence us.
- Action, When More Than Speech Is Required
However, what’s also missing in all the many discussions on speech is that despite the power of words, still “action speaks louder!” Words are perhaps a good start, but also, “words are cheap.” The way to really judge someone is less by their words, and far more so by their actual deeds. Moreover, sometimes words aren’t enough and we need to not just say something, but do something! As Edmund Burke stated, “The only thing necessary for triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” It’s great to speak out when we see wrong, but more than that we have to be willing, when necessary, to act out–to do something. For example, for years now anti-Semitism has been resurgent (yet again) in Europe with increasing rates of hate crimes and violence against Jews, but what is being done? In the case this week, how is Germany being held to account for the fact that the Halle Synagogue didn’t have police protection for Yom Kippur or that it took them between 10-20 minutes to respond! I’ve still yet to hear an explanation, apology, and the corrective action they will be taking. We need to hold their feet to the fire of public opinion and outrage.
The Rabbi said today that when he was younger, people in school would tell him that “silence is golden,” to which he would jokingly respond that he “prefers silver,” so he could keep on speaking. In the Neflix show, “Narcos” about Pablo Escobar and the brutal Colombian drug cartels of the 1980s, they would say, “silver or lead,” meaning take the bribe or I will take your life. Quite a few politicians in Columbia who spoke out about about the cartels, unfortunately, ended up taking the lead. As Jews, we need to be ready, willing, and able to stand up for what is right in the never ending war of good over evil in this world–regardless of silver or lead, G-d forbid–with our words and with our deeds.