We have spent the past month of Cheshvan focusing on the power of words, and the middah of silence. We first discussed how our words have the power to create or destroy: Our speech can be used to build relationships, transform spiritual realities, or even destroy a person’s feelings of self-worth. Because words can have such powerful effects, Hashem put 2 “gatekeepers” on our mouths – our lips and our teeth – to remind us to filter what we say and think before we speak.
Finally, we took a deeper look at the what motivates us to speak in the first place. We noted that we are often tempted to speak up just in order to prove ourselves. We might interrupt other people to show that we already know what they’re going to say, or we might offer wrong answers to their questions just because we’re too embarrassed to say “I don’t know.” When these situations come up, it’s best to remain silent and not try to prove ourselves or flaunt our own knowledge. The more we practice this type of humility, the more we will avoid hurting other people, and the closer we will come to Hashem.
SILENCE AND ANGER
While it’s always a good idea to think before you speak, it’s particularly important to stay silent when you’re feeling angry, because otherwise you might end up saying something you’ll later regret.
Imagine that you come home from a long day of work or school, feeling exhausted. You are looking forward to sitting in your favorite chair and relaxing with a cup of coffee. You walk over to the kitchen cabinet and start rummaging around for the coffee… but there is no coffee to be found! You move aside some cups that were in the way, and even try looking in a different cabinet… but no luck.
Suddenly you hear footsteps behind you. Ilana walks into the kitchen. She has been home all day because she recently lost her job – the 3rd time she’s been fired in the past 2 years.
“Hey – have you seen the coffee?” you ask Ilana. “I can’t find it anywhere.”
“The… what? Oh… the coffee?” she looks at you with a blank stare. Then realization dawns. “Oh right. I think we ran out yesterday. I meant to buy more today but it totally slipped my mind.” Ilana shrugs and goes to heat up a slice pizza.
“WHAT?!!!!” you scream. “I can’t believe you forgot to buy more coffee! You are so insensitive! Such a scatter-brain! No wonder you can’t ever manage to hold down a job!!” As soon as you finish screaming, you notice Ilana’s face. She looks horrified.
“Wait!” you plead. “I didn’t mean it that way! I was just a little frustrated about the coffee. It’s OK, I know you can forget sometimes. I forget things sometimes, too… Ilana?”
But it’s too late. Your sister is hurt and you can’t take back what you said. “Is that really what you think of me?” she says in a tiny voice. “You think I’m such a scatter-brain? Well thanks a lot for believing in me. I knew I could always trust in you for support.” Her sarcasm is biting and you realize how deeply your words must have hurt her.
“Ilana! Wait! I didn’t mean it that way….” you say, but it’s too late. Ilana has already walked away and you can’t ever take back what you said. You are wishing you had never even opened your mouth to begin with.
In situations like these, we remember that once the words come out of our mouth, we can’t ever take them back! Once our words have escaped our lips, it’s too late! That’s why it’s so important to think before we speak, and it’s particularly important to do so when we’re feeling angry. When we’re feeling angry, we are much more likely to say thing that we’ll later regret.
The best way to protect yourself from letting loose any hurtful comments is simply to close your mouth as soon you start to feel the anger rise within you.
Yes, if someone hurts you, it’s sometimes important to let them know how you’re feeling, so that they’ll have the chance to apologize or rectify the situation. But this conversation doesn’t necessarily have to happen right away. As long as the anger is still burning within you, it’s too risky to try talking to them about how you feel. Wait until you cool off.
EMULATING HASHEM: THE ULTIMATE SILENT ONE
In addition to staying silent to avoid saying words that we’ll later regret, there’s another thought that can help us stay silent when we’re angry. Whenever we are insulted and yet restrain ourselves from answering back, we are actually emulating Hashem, and sustaining the entire world! How so?
The Gemara teaches that Hashem is the Ultimate Silent One. This is learned out from the passuk in Az Yashir1: “Mi Chamocha Ba’eilim Hashem – Who is like You, among the strong ones, Hashem?” Although the simple meaning of “eilim” is “strong ones,” the Gemara2 re-interprets the passuk as “Mi Chamocha Ba’ilmim Hashem – Who is like You, among the silent ones, Hashem?” Hashem is the ultimate silent One. There is no one who excels at silence more than Hashem. What does that mean? How is Hashem silent?
Chazal explain that Hashem demonstrates the tremendous middah of silence when He sees wicked people sinning – or when He sees the other nations insulting the Jewish people – and yet He remains silent.3 It’s the hugest insult in the world that Hashem, the Creator of the entire universe, is constantly pumping life energy into us, and yet during the very moments that our entire existence is dependent on Him, we sin again Him! Day after day, over and over, we unfortunately keep on transgressing Hashem’s will. And yet, Hashem remains silent.
Imagine you are walking across a narrow bridge that is high above the ground. If a person would fall off the bridge, they would die instantly. One of the people in your group – Avi – suddenly becomes gripped with fear, and he cannot continue walking. But if he stays paralyzed forever, Avi will never get home. So you offer to carry Avi on your shoulders.
While you are carrying Avi, and he is hanging on to you for dear life, Avi starts to heap insults upon you. He insults your face, your looks, your personality, and everything about you. What a chutzpah! Normally, such insults would be disrespectful, but the fact that you are carrying Avi and his very life depends on you makes it even more disrespectful! It is unimaginable that anyone would ever be so disrepectful and ungrateful that they insult the person who is in the middle of saving their life.
And yet, if we think about it, this is actually what it’s like, every time we do a sin. The Tomer Devorah4 writes that every second of our lives, we are dependent on Hashem to keep pumping life energy into us to maintain our existence. The fact that we continue to sin against Hashem – while our very lives are utterly dependent on Him – is a massive insult to the Creator of the Universe.
Out of His tremendous mercy and understanding that we are mere humans who make mistakes, Hashem remains silent and “bears” this “insult” and continues to let us live. That is why the angels call Hashem a “Melech Aluv – an insulted King” and that’s why we say “Mi Keil Kamocha – Who is like You, Hashem?” There is no person in the history of mankind who has ever displayed such tremendous silence and patience to bear insults, as Hashem does for us, every single day!
Whenever we choose to remain silent when someone hurts us, we are emulating Hashem. Indeed, the Midrash Shochar Tov5 says that anyone who hears someone insult him, yet remains silent, becomes a partner with Hashem, because Hashem, too, hears the gentile nations insulting Him and He can destroy them in an instant – yet He remains silent.
Not only that, but Chazal also teach us that the entire world is sustained in the merit of a person who restrains himself from responding in the middle of an argument.6 The power of silence and self-restraint is so great that it sustains the entire world.
Next month, we will learn more strategies for how to deal with the middah of anger. But in the meantime, here is a long-term challenge…
Sources:  Shemos 15:11;  Gitin 56b;  See Mechilta on Shemos 15;  Tomer Devorah: Chapter on Mi Keil Kamocha;  Midrash Shochar Tov on Mizmor 86;  Chullin 89a;
If you encounter someone who hurts you, insults you, makes you feel frustrated, angry, or impatient, choose to remain silent (or at least to respond in a very calm tone of voice).
If you do this at least 3 times in the next month, you will earn 10 bonus points toward next month’s contest. (We will ask you at the end of next month if you did it, be”H.)