So far, we have discussed the power of speech and the power of silence. Words can build and words can destroy. We have practiced using our speech for positive purposes – such as giving thanks, complimenting other people, and making brachos. We also practiced silence – withholding our words, and being careful to think before we speak.
Now let’s think a little deeper: What motivates a person to speak in the first place?
Sometimes we speak because we need something, like “Please pass the salt.” Sometimes we speak to relay important information, like “I heard the bus is coming late today.” Sometimes we speak for a mitzvah, like saying a brachah. But other times, our speech has self-centered motivations: Sometimes, we say things just for the sake of proving ourselves or showing off.
Imagine that Eli and Shimon are standing on the street one day when they notice a big moving truck in front of the Cohen’s house.
“Woah, I didn’t know the Cohens were moving!” says Eli.
“Yep,” answers Shimon. “They’ve been planning this move for a while.”
“Really?” says Eli. “I thought they were so happy here! What made them decide to move?”
Shimon actually has no idea why the Cohens decided to move, but he’s too embarrassed to let Eli know that. Shimon has always been the town “hocker” – he’s always up on the latest news. Everyone can count on Shimon to know which people had a baby last month, whose son is about to have a bar mitzvah, and which couples just got engaged. But on this rare occasion, Shimon actually doesn’t know why the Cohens moved. But he’s too embarrassed to let Eli know that.
“Oh, you know,” says Shimon, with a shrug of his shoulders. “We recenty hired a new president for the shul. I think Mr. Cohen doesn’t get along with him. I saw them together at the kiddush last week, and it sure looked like they were avoiding each other. I could tell from the expression on Mr. Cohen’s face that he can’t stand being around that guy.”
“Wow, I had no idea!” Eli responds. “Just goes to show what a difference the shul president can make. Whew. I can’t believe people get so worked up about shul politics that they would even move their whole family to a different town!”
“Yeah,” says Shimon. “Hard to believe!”
Shimon really has no idea why the Cohens decided to move, but he forced himself to make up a story so that he wouldn’t seem out of the loop. Shimon’s desire for kavod – maintaining his reputation as the town “hocker” – is making him lose sight of the more important values of Emes (truth) and Shalom (peace). If Shimon makes up stories about other people and tries to guess about their personal motivations, he will end up spreading lies and rumors that can end up hurting a lot of people.
Offering made-up stories is not the only way we might use our speech to try to prove ourselves. It might happen when we interruptsomeone else to show that we already know what they’re going to say. It might happen when we contradict someone else’s opinion just to show that we know better. It might happen when we tell exaggerated or half-made-up stories just so that we get people’s attention. It might happen when we answer someone’s question when in truth we’re just too embarrassed to admit “I don’t know.” Or it might happen when we keep on arguing with someone and bringing proofs to make a point, even long after it doesn’t matter any more who was right.
There are many ways we may be tempted to use our speech to prove ourselves. But we have to remember that our words have consequences. If we try too hard to prove ourselves with our words, we might end up hurting other people.
If we interrupt our friends too much while they’re talking, they’ll feel frustrated and unheard. If we contradict or prove someone wrong in front of other people, they may feel embarrassed. If we keep on arguing to make a point and prove that we’re right, the argument might end up escalating into a full-blown fight with paintful insults.
Not only do our words have the potential to hurt other people, but if we are too focused on proving ourselves and showing off, this middah of self-aggrandizement creates a barrier between us and Hashem.
In Sefer Devarim, when Moshe Rabbeinu told over the story of the Giving of the Torah at Har Sinai, Moshe said, “Anochi Omeid Bein Hashem U’Veineichem – I stood between you and Hashem.”1 Moshe was saying that he had acted as the “middleman” between us and Hashem; Moshe was Hashem’s messenger to give us the Torah.
But the Kotzker Rebbe2 explains that the Torah is hinting to a deeper message: It is the “Anochi” (sense of “I”) that stands between us and Hashem. The more a person aggrandizes himself, flaunting his “I” and trying to prove himself to others, the more he creates a barrier between himself and Hashem. But the more a person works on his humility, seeing himself as a mere vessel for doing Hashem’s will, the more he will draw close to Hashem.
This week, let’s practice using our silence to remind ourselves to be humble. Let’s try to avoid using our speech as a way to show off to other people. By letting go of the need to prove ourselves, and staying silent instead, we will be able to draw closer to Hashem and draw closer to other people.
Sources:  Devarim 4:5;  The Kotzker Rebbe, as quoted in the Sifsei Chaim: Middos V’Avodas Hashem Vol. I. pg. 250 footnote
Every day, choose 1 hour to be extra careful not to “prove yourself” or “show off” with your speech.
At the beginning of the hour, say out loud (or at least think): “If I am tempted to say something to show off during this hour, I will be SILENT instead, bli neder.”
Examples of ways we might try to prove ourselves with speech:
- Interrupting someone else while they’re talking, to show that you already know what they’re going to say.
- Pretending that you know the answer to something (e.g. a halachic question) instead of admitting “I don’t know.”
- Jumping in to answer something instead of giving another person the opportunity to answer it on their own.
- Talking about how you’re better than other people or groups of people.
- Putting down or making fun of people or groups of people.
- Telling exaggerated or half-made-up stories so that you’ll get people’s attention.
- Continuing to argue with someone after it doesn’t matter any more who was right.
- After the spies came back with the report about the Land of Israel, the Jewish people were very afraid. Which person told them to be silent? (Bamidbar 13:30)
- After Iyov experienced numerous personal tragedies, Iyov’s friends waited silently before starting to speak to him. How long did they wait? (See Iyov 2:13)
- Why did they wait so long before speaking to him? (See Iyov 2:13)
- What praise does Rabbi Shimon say about silence in Pirkei Avos 1:17?
- According to Mishlei 17:28, what will people think about a fool who stays silent?
- When was Shaul silent? What didn’t he say? (See Shmuel Alef 10:16)
- When Bilam suggested that Pharaoh drown the Jewish baby boys in the water, one of Pharaoh’s other advisors was silent. Who was this silent advisor? (See Sotah 11a)
- The Gemara (Chullin 89a) says that a person’s job in this world is to make himself as silent as a mute, but there is one exception – he should use his speech for _____?
Questions to Ponder
- It says in Tehillim 65:2, “Licha Doomeeya Tehilla – For You [Hashem], silence is praise.” What does it mean that “silence is praise” for Hashem?
- When the Jewish people were standing at the brink of the Yam Suf with the Egyptians running after them, Moshe reassured them: “Hashem will fight for you, and you will be silent.” Why do you think Moshe told them to be silent? What does this kind of silence accomplish?
- When Aharon’s children (Nadav and Avihu) were punished with death, Aharon accepted their punishment in silence. But when Iyov was afflicted with pain, he cried out to Hashem. So what should a person do when they are faced with suffering? Is it better to accept suffering in silence, or to cry out to Hashem?
- The Midrash Shochar Tov writes that a person who gets insulted but stays silent, he becomes a partner with Hashem. What does that mean? How is he a partner with Hashem?