Jewish Journal


July 15, 2004

Right Words

Parshat Matot-Masei (Numbers 30:2-31:13)


"Why do human fingers resemble pegs? So that if one hears something unseemly, one can plug one's fingers in one's ears." -- Babylonian Talmud Ketubot 5b

Between political campaigns and summer weddings, we've been witnessing a lot of promises and vows lately. As a rule, I find wedding

promises more convincing than campaign ones, but are there any among us who haven't witnessed the breaking of both kinds of vows? So frequently, it seems, that we might sometimes wonder if any folks these days take their own word seriously.

I say "these days," but it's not only now, of course. Jewish tradition has always taken both the making and breaking of vows seriously. In fact, we are taught to take seriously the importance and meaning of any words that come out of our mouths. This week's Torah portion instructs us not only in the making and keeping of vows, but also in the negotiation and amending of oral contracts, including instruction on what land goes to which tribes, on who is responsible for an oath made by a spouse and on the inheritance laws for women.

It seems no coincidence that this double portion, with its topics of vows, contracts and the power of words, comes as we look forward to the month of Av -- a time of solemnity as we move toward the 9th of Av (Tisha B'Av), the reflective, sorrowful fast day commemorating woes that befell the Jewish people. Many of those through the misuse of words.

Among these sad events are two relevant ones: the story we read a few weeks ago in Parshat Shelach Lecha of the 12 scouts who were sent to spy out the Promised Land; and the interpretations of why the First and the Second Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed. Why did God bring a plague upon 10 of the scouts? According to Torah, because they spoke an evil report about the Promised Land, frightening the Israelites, prompting a loss of faith (see Numbers 14). And why were the Temples destroyed? The Talmud tells us the Second Temple's destruction occurred "because therein prevailed hatred without cause" (Yoma 9b).

But wasn't that true in the time of the First Temple also? Rabbi Eleazar explains that one of the causes of that destruction was "people who ate and drank together and then thrust each other through with the daggers of the tongue."

Using words to provoke fear and panic, causeless hatred and other hurts are among the wrongdoings that brought destruction upon us in times past, and, clearly, still today. Wrongdoing through words outnumbers any other kind of sin on the long lists of sins for which we ask forgiveness at Yom Kippur.

Elul -- the month of teshuvah (repentance and turning), which follows the month of Av and precedes the Days of Awe -- is intended to be a time of reflection upon the words we have spoken and withheld, the hurt we have caused, the apologies and amends we need to make. The month of Av (which begins this Sunday night, July 18), with its backdrop of the ways our ancestors misused words, comes with a different custom, one that invites us to keep from making the mistakes our ancestors made. Machsom l'fi, guarding the tongue, invites us to spend the first eight days of Av not in self-reflection for what we have already done, but in greater-than-ordinary concentration on what we might say or not say right now, before we say something we regret, before words leave our mouths that will require us to make amends later on or before we remain silent when we should have spoken.

What could our world be if we always reflected before words came forth? What effect would it have on what we say about one another? About other peoples? About other nations? About our loved ones? About ourselves? And perhaps even more profoundly, what would we hear if everyone around us were guarding his or her words just as carefully? At our synagogue, on the Shabbat before their wedding, the blessing we offer the bride and groom, or groom and groom, or bride and bride, contains this advice from Rabbi Sidney Greenberg: "May you waste no opportunity to speak words of sympathy, of appreciation, of praise, and when you offer words of criticism, may they be chosen with care, and spoken softly."

Simply put: In our lives, or at least in the first eight days of Av, can we be deliberate with each word we speak and each we do not, each word we hear and each we choose not to hear? Words can change worlds; we know this from our liturgy: God spoke and the world came to be -- Baruch sh'amar.

Words can change hearts, hardening or softening them. Words can encourage, as when -- like this week -- we finish reading a book of Torah and say to one another: hazak hazak v'nitkhazek, be strong, be strong, and let these words -- on the caretaking of words -- strengthen each other.

Lisa Edwards is rabbi at Beth Chayim Chadashim.

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