Guard your tongue from evil !
I dedicate these thoughts in my brother’s memory. L’ilui nishmat Yaakov Chanan Dov a’h, ben Yosef Mordechai haLevi, whose Yahrzeit is ז”ך אֱלוּל.
For me this is a mixed time of year. It’s Elul! Rosh HaShana is almost here! It’s a time of excitement as we ready ourselves and our homes to celebrate. Since the 1st day of Elul the call of the Shofar has resounded all around the world. L’David HaShem Ori -Psalm Tehillim 27 is recited daily also from the first day of Elul, through Shmini Atzeret. In honor of the Yamim Noraim, Shuls will remove the usual Parochet from the Aron Kodesh to be newly draped in a special white one. The Sifrei Torah inside are dressed in beautiful white mantles. The Bima cover is switched to white. On Yom Tov, everyone will be wearing white too, -and we come to realize- we’re completely immersed in a sea of white. The atmosphere is mesmerizing and it’s as if we’ve been transported to a new spiritual plane. A deep sense of awe runs through us. It truly is a momentous time in our lives.
Elul stirs my heart in a different way– because it’s been 15 years since my brother Danny was niftar on Shabbos Kodesh the 27th of Elul 5768, days before Rosh HaShana. Danny, a’h, will always be with me but as each year passes I struggle. I miss him beyond measure. In just days it will be his yahrzeit. He truly lived by the words:
נְצֹ֣ר לְשֽׁוֹנְךָ֣ מֵרָ֑ע
We’re told in Bamidbar 14:37 of the fate of the Meraglim-spies, “Those men who brought back an evil report against Eretz Yisrael and provoked the Assembly to spread the evil were killed by plague before G-d.”
‘וַיָּמֻ֨תוּ֙ הָֽאֲנָשִׁ֔ים מֽוֹצִאֵ֥י דִבַּת־הָאָ֖רֶץ רָעָ֑ה בַּמַּגֵּפָ֖ה לִפְנֵ֥י ה On the 17th of Elul, HaShem punished them, exactly 40 days after their sin. Measure for measure, because they spied the Holy Land for 40 days.
Our Sages teach us, “ Rabbi Elazar ben Prata said, ‘Come and see how great-devastating Lashon haRa is, and how severe the punishment is for speaking slander. From where do we learn this? From the Meraglim. The person who slanders mere wood and stones (meaning the Holy Land) he is punished severely. Thus, how much more so when he speaks slander of his fellow man,’ ” In his preface to The Prohibitions of Lashon Hara, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, known as the Chafetz Chaim, expounds, “ is it not well known that exile had already been decreed upon us because of the act of the spies (Tehillim 106:25-27)… And the sin of the spies — was it not that of Lashon haRa! Therefore, it is imperative that we correct this sin before the redemption can take place.”
During the month of Elul, as we approach Rosh HaShana and we concentrate introspectively and strive to do Teshuva, we analyze both our deeds and our faults. Perhaps the greatest challenge we face is that of controlling our speech! For our every word has repercussions and we may not even be aware of the results. We can look back and say, I was kind to others, I kept Kosher, I kept Shabbat, I even prayed more. I did a lot of Mitzvot. When it comes to guarding our speech though, how many of us, including me, can earnestly say that we really followed the Mitzvot of Hilchot Lashon haRa. Generally they are very demanding of us. We may feel overwhelmed by these laws. How can I personally possibly adhere to not speaking Lashon haRa? It’s too hard! Lashon haRa not only means evil gossip, but includes forbidden speech, derogatory language, verbal abuse, slander, and more. Sometimes telling the truth may actually be a form of Lashon haRa.
Yet the Chafetz Chaim in his writings, points out that the truth of the matter is, it is not impossible to keep from speaking sinful talk. For if it were impossible, G-d would not have written these laws in the Torah! Rather, G-d would have phrased the matter as “good advice, or a standard we should strive to attain if we can.” Since however there are definite laws in the Torah stipulating ways to conduct our daily talk, we learn that this is something we can correct and control.
We open the Amida prayer with, “Open my lips to declare your praise” ה’ שְׂפָתַי תִּפְתָּח וּפִי יַגִּיד תְּהִלָּתֶֽךָ Near the end of Amida we say, “May the expressions of my mouth and the meditations of my heart find favor before you G-d.”
יִהְיוּ לְרָצוֹן אִמְרֵי פִי וְהֶגְיוֹן לִבִּי לְפָנֶֽיךָ ה’ צוּרִי וְגוֹאֲלִי . We have to mean in our hearts what we say with our lips. Furthermore we say an additional personal prayer, “HaShem Guard my tongue from bad speech and my lips from speaking deceitfully. נְצוֹר לְשׁוֹנִי מֵרָע וּשְׂפָתַי מִדַּבֵּר מִרְמָה” We ask G-d for His Divine assistance in this matter because we know it isn’t easy.
David HaMelech, sweet singer of Israel composer of the Tehillim -Psalms, relates to us how we can control Lashon haRa: Tehillim 34:13-15
This is the reference for the words just mentioned that are found in Amida. Who is the man who desires life, who loves days to see goodness? This is also the source of the title of Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan’s sefer, for which he became known as the Chafetz Chaim.
נְצֹ֣ר לְשֽׁוֹנְךָ֣ מֵרָ֑ע וּ֜שְׂפָתֶ֗יךָ מִדַּבֵּ֥ר מִרְמָֽה Guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceitfully. That is his unswerving sign to us. It goes on to say: ס֣וּר מֵ֖רָע וַֽעֲשֵׂה־ט֑וֹב בַּקֵּ֖שׁ שָׁל֣וֹם וְרָדְפֵֽהוּ
King David tells us עֲשֵׂה־ט֑וֹב. We need to DO good. How do we fulfill this you may ask? We have to work at it, we must actively pursue Shalom – בַּקֵּ֖שׁ שָׁל֣וֹם וְרָדְפֵֽהוּ It begins in our home, with our friends, in our community, our shul, and schools. We know that before we may ask G-d for forgiveness, we need and ask for forgiveness from others to make peace.
For ourselves, as parents and teachers, the children, our students listen to us and really hear what we say. What a responsibility – to speak in a kind manner, to choose our words carefully and thoughtfully, to say good things and avoid being מוציא שם רע the bearer of spreading a bad name, ruining one’s name (reputation) – which brings us back to the sin of the Meraglim, the spies.
What an opportunity for us to set the example for them to grow up as good people of good character. How often do we tell our children “you shouldn’t lie? Don’t you know it’s wrong? How could you have said such and such?” We may lecture them and lecture them. Oh, but what happens when the phone rings, and the child answers? You’re sitting there finally putting up your feet after a long day of work or other endeavors. “It’s for you ” and How do we respond? “Tell them I’m not home, I’m so tired I don’t feel like talking.” What just happened? Whatever eloquent speech you previously may have given is out the door! We say, “don’t talk in shul, say your prayers.” Then what do we do? We talk! I’m sure you can think of other examples of this. Our children see and hear us. The message is all too clear to them! When we speak in such ways, the misuse of speech-Lashon haRa starts with us. How easy for them to follow our lead, to learn it’s ok to talk that way, and to spread it. Our words are carried far from our lips.
There’s question as to what sin exactly the Meraglim perpetrated. However, there is one sure thing about which there can’t be dispute. The Meraglim provoked others, the Assembly into spreading Lashon haRa about the Holy Land, which in truth was slandering G-d Himself. For this they were punished.
This is what we must avoid—spreading, provoking Lashon haRa. We must work on this trait and be careful what we say. A Midrash sums it up best, found in Vayikra Raba: Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel once sent his servant to buy him some “good food.” His servant known for his wisdom returned with a tongue. Rabban Shimon then asked his servant to bring him some “bad food”. Again his servant brought back a tongue. When asked to explain how the same food could be both good and bad, his astute servant replied: When a tongue speaks properly, there is nothing better. But, when a tongue does not, there is nothing worse.
A favorite of mine, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said it well in his poem The Arrow and the Song:
I shot an arrow into the air,
It fell to earth, I knew not where …
Our words are like arrows. They can be sharp and although we may not be pointing them at anyone in particular, we know not where they land—or who they hit and hurt, they can be far reaching.
We have the opportunity as the Chafetz Chaim us, guides us to be closer to Redemption. Let’s think about and work on the Middah of Shmirat haLashon, guarding our tongues, our language and speech. Let’s DO good with the extraordinary gift of speech G-d gave us which distinguishes us as humans from the animal kingdom. Let’s make a conscientious effort to bring קְדוּשָׁה Holiness through our speech and use it wisely. Let’s be the role models our children need in an age when people say whatever they want and gossip columns sell the papers and social media inundates us with the latest stories of our neighbors’ flaws.
I’d like to share some final thoughts:
In each Psalm, King David speaks from his heart, for the individual and the Nation, expressing a transcendent song larger than life. We find ourselves in his words, which is what makes them universal. It’s why we return to David HaMelech’s Tehillim over and over again, to rejoice in Simcha and to find solace. Tehillim have been our refuge for centuries.
Near the end of L’David HaShem Ori, Tehillim 27, David HaMelech says כִּ֥י קָֽמוּ־בִ֥י עֵֽדֵי־שֶׁ֜֗קֶר וִיפֵ֥חַ חָמָֽס – for false witnesses and speakers of evil have risen against me. Then he sings: ל֗וּ֗לֵ֣֗א֗ הֶֽ֖אֱמַנְתִּי לִרְא֥וֹת בְּטֽוּב־ְה בְּאֶ֣רֶץ חַיִּֽים Rashi explains Melech David’s intent – If I hadn’t believed in G-d I would have succumbed to the false witnesses who have risen against me… He understood it was G-d and his faith in G-d which sustained him in his time of distress.
It’s interesting to me that (1) David HaMelech knew the goodness of the Land, an extension of G-d’s goodness, and he used his speech to declare Israel the Land of Life ְאֶ֣רֶץ חַיִּֽים . And (2) that it was false witnesses who were after him.
Coming back to the original case of the Meraglim, when we juxtapose these two episodes, the contrast is remarkable: (1) The spies contended the Land was full of giants but they were like grasshoppers to be devoured etc., basically there was no possibility for Life there. (2) The Meraglim gave false testimony regarding the Land.
Look how David HaMelech’s words echo throughout his Tehillim! We just read
ל֗וּ֗לֵ֣֗א֗ הֶֽ֖אֱמַנְתִּי לִרְא֥וֹת בְּטֽוּב־ְה בְּאֶ֣רֶץ חַיִּֽים. We began with מִֽי־הָ֖אִישׁ הֶֽחָפֵ֣ץ חַיִּ֑ים אֹ֘הֵ֥ב יָ֜מִ֗ים לִרְא֥וֹת טֽוֹב
ל֗וּ֗לֵ֣֗א֗ הֽ֖אֱמַנְתִּי When we have faith –we’ll see the Good and we’ll speak the Good! King David reinforces this conviction, to strengthen our faith, in the next verse – the concluding Pasuk of Tehillim 27: קַוֵּ֗ה אֶל־ה’ חֲ֖זַק וְיַֽאֲמֵ֣ץ לִבֶּ֑ךָ וְ֜קַוֵּ֗ה אֶל־ה These are the words on Danny’s kever, a’h, which he lived by religiously. I look to Danny for strength when my faith is faltering. I know he never gave up or gave in.
Earlier we discussed ways of communication with children and showing them how to have proper speech. Let’s look closer at Tehillim 34, and examine verse 12, immediately preceding the words מִֽי־הָ֖אִישׁ הֶֽחָפֵ֣ץ חַיִּ֑ים There we find the key to everything. “Draw close Children I’ll teach you the Fear of HaShem.” לְכֽוּ־בָ֖נִים שִׁמְעוּ־לִ֑י יִרְאַ֥ת ה’ אֲלַמֶּדְכֶֽם
What better teacher than David HaMelech himself, who models for us the way we should speak. In essence, David HaMelech gives us the unswerving sign that to desire Life and see Good, — to come closer to G-d which is Teshuva, we must use the utmost care when we speak, and we begin with our children! He tells us we do have the ability to change and take control of our speech, one of the hardest parts of doing Teshuva.
As David HaMelech enjoins us
May we be blessed with long days to see Tov, the Good, by desiring life. All we have to do is steer clear of LaShon HaRa and we’ll be on the right path to Teshuva !
שנה טובה ומתוקה
CHAZAK! Miriam Leah