When to Speak up, When to Keep Quiet – Metzorah Pre -Passover Sermon Rabbi Moshe P. Weisblum, PhD April 12, 2008
Have you ever been given a gift that was just so awesome, so exquisite that you were torn whether to display it or not. Maybe it was a rare porcelain vase or a sparkling piece of jewelry or an original piece of art? When we receive a gift do we fully appreciate its value?
In this week's Torah portion, Metzorah, we examine such a gift. We have been bestowed with the gift of speech, the ability to express deep and meaningful sentiment, to sing the finest songs and deliver beautiful poems. The ability to formulate insightful ideas of our mind and transfer them to our mouths is quite a feat. However, it can also be the source of much harm, evil speech, what we know as Lashon Hara. The Metzorah is the person who, having spoken Lashon Hara, becomes inflicted with a serious skin disease called Tzara’at, and becomes Tamah, impure. Tzara’at is no ordinary skin rash, like hives or eczema. Tzara’at taints the very core of the Metzorah. It is spread to the walls of a home, to a person's possessions, rendering everything related to the person as defiled, unclean. The Metzorah is ousted from a community and goes through a lengthy ritual, a rehabilitation of sorts, before he or she is allowed back. Pretty bad and intense penalty for evil gossip. The Almighty knows how destructive and evil gossip can be to a nation as well as to individuals. We learn in this week's Parsha why the punishment for indulging in Lashon Hara is so stern. G-d gave us the gift of speech to use for good, for bringing peace, kindness and unity to people. He gave us His word.
What is a word? The dictionary defines word as a unit of language, consisting of one or more spoken sounds that functions as a principal carrier of meaning. Wow! Four little letters certainly have a pretty big impact.
Modern parents and grandparents push infants to develop their oral skills early by discouraging gesturing and sobbing, encouraging them "to use your words" to get their point across. For some, it’s a lot easier to just punch a taunting bully in the nose than to talk it out. It’s a tough lesson, not easily mastered by adults, much less by young children, but from an early age we learn the importance of effective communication. With a large vocabulary, the child masters its world. However, learning to express our self, to make our demands known, discipline our young, write memos, spouting our wisdom, advise the world, comes with responsibility. It’s not the end of the lesson? Learning to speak is really the easy part. It’s pretty much mechanical. You create a sound from within your throat, realign your mouth and tongue, and PRESTO - you have spoken a word. Frankly, the real challenge in life is knowing when to use that skill and when to keep quiet.
Let’s look at the dialogue that takes place in the Passover Haggadah, particularly during the Exodus from Egypt. Speech is built into the holiday. The Hebrew word for the Passover is Pesach, composed of the two words, Pe,(mouth) and Sach (talking). The Talking Mouth. The mitzvah of Pesach is to talk about the Exodus. So we re-tell this story, year after year. In fact, Haggadah means "telling" fulfilling the Halachic commandment "And thou shalt tell thy son in that day, saying: It is because of that which the L-D did for me when I came forth out of Egypt."
In a very dramatic and significant biblical moment, G-d speaks to Moses for the first time, after instructing Moses to remove his sandals as he was standing on holy ground. In fact, it may well be regarded as one of the great theatrical scenes in Hollywood history, as the late Charlton Heston, he should rest in peace, in his role as Moses spoke to the burning bush on Mount Horeb. "And He said, "I am the G-d of your father, the G-d of Abraham, the G-d of Isaac, and the G-d of Jacob."
G-d tells Moses that He knows the pain of His people in Egypt and heard their cries. He tells Moses that He will free them from bondage, from the hands of the Egyptians and that Moses will lead the mission. Because we tell this story over and over each year, we know about the tremendous conflicts, frustrations and controversies between the pleading Moses and the tyrannical Pharaoh who refuses each time, to "Let My People Go."
The constant back and forth ranting, the promises made, then immediately broken, the banter, the demoralization, the torture great and small, wreaking havoc on the hearts and minds of both the slaves, who were denied their freedoms as well as the Egyptian people, beleaguered by the divine plagues. Communication overload. Filmaker Cecil B. DeMille was no fool. Even in 1956, before all the hype and technology existed that can be seen in films today, "The Ten Commandments" billed as the Greatest Event in Motion Picture History, had more adventure action and drama packed into these words then all the Star Wars sequels put together.
We also know that it was very difficult for Moses to speak publicly because he stuttered from childhood. Aaron becomes his spokesperson and forms a united front among the Jewish people, under G-d’s instructions. Together Moses and Aaron become allies in confronting the evil by speaking as one united voice on behalf of a broken nation. Enter Miriam: stage right. The devoted and precariously placed older sister of Aaron and Moses. Had it not been for the quick thinking heroic Miriam, handmaid to Pharaoh’s daughter, who found the well-placed floating basket containing the baby Moses in the first place, things could have ended very differently. Idle gossip, even to a sibling, was abhorrent enough to G-d, to punish her. Good deeds alone are not enough to combat the repercussions of speaking despairingly against others. Miriam didn’t know how to keep silent and paid the price. We can learn much from the timeless wisdom of these larger than life heroes.
The Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan dedicated himself to promoting the wisdom of speaking with restraint and dignity, thereby preventing ill-considered speech. He said, "The instrument for Tefilla, for prayer, is the mouth, and like anything used to serve G-d, it can only perform its functions if it is maintained in a pure state. Gossip, tale bearing, known in Hebrew as Lashon Hara, taints one's mouth, disabling it from performing its function. That is why guarding one's tongue is the single most important step in producing prayers that are pure, and powerful.
This is reinforced into our psyche, repeated three times a day we recite at the end of the Amidah prayer: "My G-d, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking deceitfully. To those who curse me, let my soul be silent; and let my soul be like dust to everyone. We continue: "May the words of my mouth be acceptable and the thoughts of my heart, before You HaShem, my rock and my redeemer."
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov wrote, there is a time for effective words and effective silence. He wrote in a prayer:
G-d of Wisdom, teach me the right words
Teach me the very words that will touch the hearts and souls of others.
When a friend needs my understanding ear,
teach me the words to say that will strengthen,
that will encourage, that will express
only my love and concern.
G-d of wisdom,
teach me to relate to others
with words they need to hear,
with words that will never misguide.
Teach me, dear G-d,
that often the most effective words
are no words at all.
Teach me how and when to communicate
with the most compelling gift of silence.
Like Simon and Garfunkel in their famous song "the sound of silence."
In his recently published book entitled, When to Speak Up and When to Shut Up, the author, Dr. Michael D. Sedler, cites both biblical and contemporary examples that explore strategies for effective and productive communications. "Is silence really golden?" he asks. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. He offers real life suggestions on overcoming pressures to speak out that often lead to regrets and family battles.
Just think how many family disputes, fights and arguments at work could have been avoided if people showed greater will power to bite their tongue and had the restraint to keep quiet. Even in jest or just off the cuff, oftentimes people say things that they will land up regretting later.
I'll never forget when I officiated my first wedding. I was a young Rabbi, only in my 20’s. I heard the Mishpachawish a mazel tov to the groom’s mother. Instead of graciously accepting the praise, she replied, "I've been through this many times. I'll give you some advice, take it or leave it... In-laws should keep their mouths closed and their pocketbooks open." Can you imagine the repercussions this attitude must have had on the newlyweds, the family and everyone’s future? Even 25 years later, I remember that negative sentiment.
People will often speak about "measuring one’s words," meaning to choose your words carefully, thinking about the repercussions, before you take action or speak spontaneously. Or as Mother simply advises, "Think before you speak, son." Or "if you have nothing to say, don’t say it at all!
Well, here’s another way to look at "measuring one’s words." The mystics tell us that each person is born with a fixed amount of words to speak within a lifetime. That means that we have a limited amount of things to say – and then we are at the end of the supply. Imagine opening your mouth and nothing comes out. No sound. Nothing. You’ve used up all your supply. Just think how much better, more peaceful, the world would be if people would "measure their words carefully." First thing that comes to my mind is that most political campaigns budgets could be cut in half!
So – as I end this sermon, here is a word to the wise. The Seder is a time where everyone has a say, everyone participates. In the safe structure of the seder, our words are all spelled out for us. The story of the exodus is explained. The four questions are asked, then answered. Everything is in order. In fact, seder means order, so that all the prayers, explanations, rituals are all done relatively the same way all over the world. Of course we will all enjoy ourselves, being together with loved ones. Let’s remember to guard our tongue, measure our words and create peace by knowing when to speak and when silence is really golden. Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach.