Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, is like a boot camp for our tongue. We spend the whole day praying instead of tongue wagging and abstain from eating instead of pacifying our thousands of demanding taste buds. Twenty-five hours of repurposing and disciplining an eight-muscled tongue is no small effort when 364 days of the year it is granted free reign. And so as people exit the synagogue at the end of the holiday, I’ve noticed that most whom I’ve encountered, family and friends, will stop themselves mid-sentence, when they are about to comment negatively on something or someone they saw that day. The sentence will start with, “Did you see how So and So looked? And will be self-interrupted with, “Ah, I just finished praying, it’s a New Year. I don’t want to talk bad.”
Indeed, showing great promise, at the end of the very intense Day of Atonement, our tongues seem to know better. But as the awe of the day loses its grip on us and the savory break fast meal moistens our mouths, we quickly forget our prayers of repentance and all the hours we spent begging to be sealed in the Book of Life. Our tongues resume old habits and give life to the language of death, the language of the snake who talked bad about God to entice Eve to sin and successfully brought death to the world–a true and tragic fall from Paradise. For the Torah says that when God blew life into Adam, he became a “speaking being.” And thus a person’s speech is an expression of the very soul that God breathes into him, making gossiping, slandering, spreading rumors–true or false–all sins. Deadly ones!
With His love He breathed life into our mouths and with that very same vessel we spew hate, mischief, curses and falsehoods. As delectable as fresh gossip may be, know that our tongues can effectively lick our names write out of the Book of Life and write an entirely new biography, one with a scary ending. The Talmud states that every word which issues from our mouths, whether good, evil, by mistake, or on purpose, is written in a book: “Then those who feared the Lord spoke with one another; the Lord has hearkened and listened, and a book of remembrance has been written before Him […].” 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?
Last week, I wrote an article about the kosher laws entitled, “Is your diet making you ugly?” In this week’s Torah reading we learn how talking bad about people and slander can you make you even uglier. The punishment for it is a skin disease called tzarat (miscalled leprosy). Moses’ own sister, Miriam, is punished with an ephemeral bout of tzarat for talking bad about him. And even Moses himself was affected by it momentarily. God turned his hand white with tzarat, and then back to normal again, after the world’s most humble man was hesitant about God’s assignment and said that the elders of Israel wouldn’t believe him. 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 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)
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!’”(1:3); “And G-d said ‘Let there be a firmament!’”(1:6); “And G-d said ‘Let the water gather!’” (1:9), etc. Using the power of speech negatively effectively destroys what He so lovingly created. God created the world in seven days and thus we read this week that the slanderer who is diagnosed with tzarat is separated from the community for seven days. “The punishment is measure-for-measure: If you promote divisiveness amongst others, then you will also suffer the divisiveness of separation from the community.”[i]
So here I repeat, the world was created by words, it is sustained by words and it can be destroyed by words. 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) From all things why would David be happy God broke the teeth of the wicked, wouldn’t he be happier if he broke their swords or their legs? 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. However, seeing that Israel’s enemies used their teeth as sounding boards to foment hatred toward God and his people, God smashed their teeth and they became as useless as a snake without bite and venom.
Eleanor Roosevelt is attributed as saying: “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.” So my dear friends, what are you talking about? I know personally 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? Are you behaving as if you were created in God’s image or slithering in the shadows like a sneaky snake. If you don’t believe that words have power, then why bother praying on Yom Kippur at all, or anytime for that matter?
I know it’s not easy to stop and that being a yenta is as contagious as the plagues it causes. But we are better than that. How can we not be? God made us! Remember the simple advice we’ve all been told in our life, “Think before you speak.” If we’d be in court in front of a judge we’d measure every word we say. Well we are in front of a Judge, an eternal Judge who is always watching and can’t be fooled. Know before whom you stand! Watch your mouth and remember most things are better left unsaid.
[i] www.aish.com Rabbi Shraga Simmons