Parshat Matot – Masei תשפא
It is difficult for us to appreciate the power of our speech since we live in a materialistic world, where actions, which we can see and evaluate, take on greater importance than speech, which seems to be just a string of utterances with no visible impact. Our world subscribes to the notion that “actions speak louder than words.”
Our Sages teach us, however, that the effects of our speech are far more impactful than the effects of our actions. We perform actions in a specific place at a specific time; speech, on the other hand, which contains a spiritual component, once unleashed goes everywhere. And its impact can last for years.
Man received the power of speech with his creation. The verse (Genesis 2:7) says:
וַיִּיצֶר יְדֹוָד אֱלֹקִים אֶת הָאָדָם עָפָר מִן הָאֲדָמָה וַיִּפַּח בְּאַפָּיו נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים וַיְהִי הָאָדָם לְנֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה:
7) And Hashem formed man from the dust of the earth, and He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.
Rashi comments on these words:
לנפש חיה – אף בהמה וחיה נקראו נפש חיה אך זו של אדם חיה שבכולן שנתוסף בו דעה ודבור
A living being – Even the animals are called “living beings,” but this living being called man is the most alive of them all, for he was endowed with intelligence and speech.
Onkelus (the Torah’s Aramaic translation) translates the words “נפש חיה” as “לרוח ממללא” – a speaking being.
The power of speech defines man as a spiritual creature and puts him in a different category than animals, who may communicate but who do not “speak.” Speech is what gives expression to the hidden, undetectable thoughts in ones’ mind and allows him to share what’s on his mind with others. Because the power of speech was given to man as a means to articulate the ideas and thoughts in his soul, it is a spiritual power breathed into man by Hashem and comprises a part of his soul.
The Kabbalists point out that when Hashem breathed life into Adam, the breath that went into him came from within Hashem himself, so to speak. Therefore, because Hashem is completely spiritual, so, too, was the breath that Hashem breathed into Adam. This “breath of life” is what creates speech as it passes through our voice-box when we vocalize our thoughts.
Being a spiritual power, speech can penetrate heaven’s spiritual realms and generate holiness or, unfortunately, if abused, unholiness. A person generates holiness when he uses his power of speech to pray to Hashem, to learn the holy Torah, to comfort those in mourning, or to encourage the downtrodden. Such words penetrate the very heavens and cause a tremendous surge of holiness that causes the angels to rejoice. We have no clue how much we accomplish with every prayer that we offer, with every word of Torah that we learn, and with every word of kindness that we speak.
When the Jewish people stood at Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments, the Torah tells us (Exodus 20:15):
טו) וְכָל הָעָם רֹאִים אֶת הַקּוֹלֹת
15) And the whole nation saw the voices
The Sages (Midrash Yalkut Shimoni Yitro 300) explain (regarding “seeing” the voices), They saw what could be heard.
The Jewish people were on such a high spiritual level that they were able to see the sounds of Hashem’s words as a spiritual reality. Although now also, our words contain a spiritual reality, we are not on the level to see it.
The Mishna in Pirkei Avot (5:1) teaches us:
א) בַּעֲשָׂרָה מַאֲמָרוֹת נִבְרָא הָעוֹלָם
The world was created with ten statements.
The world was created with Hashem’s power of speech. Many verses in Tanach refer to this. The blessing of שהכל נהיה בדברו – “shehakol nihyah bidvaro,” which we recite before eating some of our foods, means “everything came about through Hashem’s word.”
The Hebrew word for a thing or an item is דבר – davar. The word דבר comes from the word דיבור – dibur, which means speech. What does an item have to do with speech? The answer is that every item that exists is evidence to a word that Hashem spoke to create it. Nothing could exist had Hashem not included it in one of the ten pronouncements that He used when creating the world.
Not only that, but Hashem’s original ten utterances are still extant! They are what continue to give existence to the entire reality that we observe. If they would stop for even a moment, so would the entire world. Words are what created, and continue to create, our existence. This idea is expressed in the words of the verse in Psalms (119:89).
פט) לְעוֹלָם יְדֹוָד דְּבָרְךָ נִצָּב בַּשָּׁמָיִם
89) Your words Hashem, forever remain standing in heaven.
We obviously have no understanding of the power of Hashem’s words and their ability to create and maintain the creation, but we do see that it was Hashem’s tool for creation. When Hashem breathed the breath of life into man, which included the ability to speak, He also gave our words the power to create.
This week, we will read the double portion of Matos and Masei. From the opening topic of Matos, vows and oaths, we also see the spiritual power of our speech. The verse says (Numbers 27:3):
ג) אִישׁ כִּי יִדֹּר נֶדֶר לַידֹוָד אוֹ הִשָּׁבַע שְׁבֻעָה לֶאְסֹר אִסָּר עַל נַפְשׁוֹ לֹא יַחֵל דְּבָרוֹ כְּכָל הַיֹּצֵא מִפִּיו יַעֲשֶׂה
3) If a man takes a vow to Hashem, or swears an oath to establish a prohibition upon himself, he shall not desecrate his word; according to whatever comes from his mouth, shall he do.
This verse introduces us to the Torah topic of vows and oaths.
Whereas a vow relates to an object, an oath relates to the person who uttered the oath. An example of a vowis when a person designates an item that he is permitted to eat, say, a piece of chocolate cake, and proclaims, “This piece of cake is forbidden to me like a sacrifice!” The law of the Torah is that this pronouncement renders the food forbidden to eat exactly like a sacrifice, which is forbidden to eat, and by now eating that piece of cake he will “desecrate his word.” An example of an oath is when a person swears not to do something that he is permitted to do: “I swear that I will not eat that piece of chocolate cake!” Once again, he is not permitted to eat the cake because doing so will “desecrate his word.”
That “simple” vow uttered on the piece of cake astoundingly prohibits it as if it were a strip of bacon. Just as if a person, who is about to eat a piece of bacon, is warned by witnesses not to eat it and he eats it anyway, the court will punish him with 39 lashes, a person who ate something that he vowed not to eat, will result in the same penalty. Similarly, if he did the action that he swore not to do, and, thus, desecrated his words, he will also receive 39 lashes. All because of a few words!
On the other hand, speech’s power of creation can also create holiness. A person who wanted to donate a sacrifice to the Temple just needed to say,”הרי זו עולה” – “this animal is an Olah sacrifice,” which would sanctify the animal and render it a sacrifice. If a person wanted to donate an item to the holy Temple, all he needed was to say, “הרי זו הקדש” —“this item is sanctified (to the holy Temple!),” and the item would immediately become Temple property and forbidden for personal use.
The Talmud tells us:
אמירתו לגבוה כמסירתו להדיוט
His pronouncement to Hashem transfers it to the hands of the sexton.
How did this happen? All he did was speak! How could just a few words uttered possibly accomplish so much?
This is exactly the profound message that the laws of vows and oaths teach us – the power of our speech. The Torah teaches us that speech is not just the medium through which human beings communicate with each other like the whining and clicking of whales or the chirping of birds. Human speech has the power to create. When a person decides to use his power of speech to render something forbidden to himself, his words create a Torah ban forbidding him to use it, and when a person decides to use his power of speech to render something holy, he creates that item into a reality of holiness.
This is the secret to why the awesome holiday of Yom Kippur begins with the prayer Kol Nidrei –All my vows. The word “nidrei” is the plural form of the word “neder,” which means vow.
כָּל נִדְרֵי. וֶאֱסָרֵי. וּשְׁבוּעֵי. וַחֲרָמֵי. וְקוֹנָמֵי. וְקִנּוּסֵי. וְכִנּוּיֵי. דְּאִנְדַּרְנָא. וּדְאִשְׁתַּבַּעְנָא. וּדְאַחֲרִימְנָא. וּדְאָסַרְנָא עַל נַפְשָׁתָנָא מִיּוֹם כִּפּוּרִים זֶה. עַד יוֹם כִּפּוּרִים הַבָּא עָלֵינוּ לְטוֹבָה. בְּכֻלְּהוֹן אִיחֲרַטְנָא בְהוֹן. כֻּלְּהוֹן יְהוֹן שָׁרָן. שְׁבִיקִין. שְׁבִיתִין. בְּטֵלִין וּמְבֻטָּלִין. לָא שְׁרִירִין וְלָא קַיָּמִין
This prayer declares that all vows and oaths that we will make from this Yom Kippur until next Yom Kippur should be void. We regret them even before we make them, and we do not want them to be binding.
What do vows and oaths have to do with Yom Kippur? Why have the Sages chosen this matter as the introduction to the year’s most solemn day?
The answer is that on Yom Kippur, we spend the whole day praying to Hashem – using the power of speech – and beseeching Him for forgiveness. But before we approach Hashem with our prayers, we need to recognize the awesome power of our speech and its ability to create! Armed with this most powerful weapon, we can feel confident that we will succeed in our goal of receiving forgiveness for our sins.
On Yom Kippur (as well as every other day), it is also appropriate to consider the power that our speech has to hurt others and cause them pain. When we think about this, we realize that Hashem will only forgive us for the sins that we have committed against Him. As far as violations that we have committed against others, we must receive forgiveness from those individuals directly. So, until we mollify the person whom we hurt, we are wasting our time asking Hashem for His forgiveness. When we contemplate how much hurt and pain our words can cause, we will be sure to ask forgiveness and try to appease the offended person.
As we noted at the onset, in our dealings with others especially, our words can be more hurtful and destructive than our actions.
If a person kills another in cold blood, with a warning and in front of witnesses, the court will execute him for his crime. Yet when the murderer ultimately leaves this world, he will have a place in the world to come. If one embarrasses another in public, however, he cannot be executed for his crime, but he will lose his place in the world to come. Which is worse? This world is but a temporary one; the world to come is an eternity. Embarrassing someone in public kills the victim’s essence. You haven’t killed his body; worse, you have actually killed him. He wishes that he didn’t exist so that he could escape the acute embarrassment that he feels.
The Talmud (Chagiga 5b) relates a scary teaching. The verse says (Amos 4:13):
יג) כִּי הִנֵּה יוֹצֵר הָרִים וּבֹרֵא רוּחַ וּמַגִּיד לְאָדָם מַה שֵּׂחוֹ
13) Behold, He crafts the mountains and creates the wind, and tells a person what he spoke.
מאי מה שיחו אמר רב: אפילו שיחה יתירה שבין איש לאשתו מגידים לו לאדם בשעת מיתה
The verse says that they will tell a person “what he has spoken.” To what does this refer? Rav explains. Even a small statement said between husband and wife will be held against a person at his judgment. Wow!
Our speech is so important and so powerful that even a minor slip that had a hurtful effect on our spouse will be counted against us.
At his wife’s funeral, R’ Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (1910-1995), Rosh Yeshiva of Kol Torah in Jerusalem, a Torah leader who was also known for his pleasant ways and good heart, stood by his wife’s bier and said softly, “You know that I have no need to ask your forgiveness. We always lived in mutual respect and harmony, and I never insulted you whatsoever.”
One of Rabbi Auerbach’s disciples, today a Rav in Los Angeles, related the following: “The funeral was over and I was privileged to drive the Rosh Yeshivah home. I couldn’t hold myself back and asked him, ‘Excuse me for asking the Rosh Yeshivah a personal question on this difficult day, but I am a young student and I have a desire to learn. How can it be that the Rosh Yeshivah never said an insulting word to the Rebbetzin in all of his married life of over fifty years? Did the Rosh Yeshivah always want what she wanted? Did everything she did always find favor in your eyes?’
“He replied, ‘Of course not! Even twins who grew up in the same house have different opinions. Nevertheless, I never offended her. Whenever I felt an urge to remark about something that disturbed me, I would sit and think: With what compliment can I preface my words? How can I make my comment without hurting her? With what good word can I end off and leave a pleasant atmosphere between us?’
“He was silent for a moment, then added, ‘If I couldn’t find the proper formula, I would simply remain silent. But never did I utter an offensive word to my wife!’”
There is much to learn from the words of this holy rabbi.
There is, perhaps, a way to see the effects of our speech in a physical way.
A Japanese scientist, Dr. Masaru Emoto (d. 2014), has demonstrated that spoken words have a direct and verifiable effect on water, depending upon the type of statement made. Using powerful microscopes, Dr. Emoto conducted the following experiment. (He has published books with his findings.)
He took a cup of pure water drawn from a spring or river and placed it in a room. People in the room made either positive statements or negative ones. A small amount of water was poured into a Petri dish and frozen at -25°C for three hours. The frozen water was examined under a microscope with a magnifying power of 200x-500x in a room kept at -5°C. The visible results were amazing.
You disgust me, I am going to kill you!
Our words indeed can cause real effects in this world and are so much more than mere “sounds” exiting from our mouths. Thus, when we recite a blessing on the food that we eat, not only are we shaking up the heavens with our sacred words, we may actually be affecting, in a very positive way, the food that we are about to consume. Food for thought.