Last week, we explained that our words have tremendous power. Just as Hashem created this entire universe with the Asara Ma’amaros (“10 Sayings”), we, too, can use our words to create or destroy. Our speech can build relationships, uplift someone’s mood, or even transform spiritual realities. By simply verbalizing certain statements out loud, we can make objects holy or transform their spiritual status.
Because our words are so powerful, Chazal have warned us to be very, very careful with what we say. Shlomo HaMelech writes that “life and death are in the hands of the tongue”1 and “one who guards his mouth and tongue, guards his soul from pain.”2
Most of us can think of a time when we personally were hurt by someone else’s words. Were you ever at the receiving end of someone’s angry outburst or torrent of complaints? Did anyone ever poke fun at you with a “joke” that was actually quite insensitive? We’ve all experienced the pain of negative speech and, to put it lightly… it’s not pleasant!
At the same time, we can probably also remember times when we have said hurtful things to other people. Often, we weren’t trying to hurt the other person at all… The words just came out of our mouth before had time to think about what the consequences might be.
Imagine you are standing at a kiddush one week, talking with a group of friends. “Wow, nice watch,” your friend says, as she grabs your wrist and takes a closer look.
“Thanks!” you respond. “My aunt gave it to me as a birthday present last week. Actually, the watch she originally bought for me had a leather band, and, y’know -” you pause and roll your eyes – “leather bands are SO out of style! So I brought it back to the store and exchanged it for this one.”
“Great choice!” your friend says. “It looks stunning!”
As the conversation continues, you glance around at your friends’ wrists to see what kind of watches they are each wearing… and your heart sinks in horror as you realize that Chani, standing just 2 feet away from you, is wearing a watch with a leather band!
Chani doesn’t look outright upset, but there’s definitely a subtle pained expression on her face, and you can tell she’s trying her best to hide her feelings of discomfort. Your insides shrink in guilt as you realize how your words must have made her feel so embarrassed.
It’s time like these when we remember: Once our words have escaped our lips, we can’t ever take them back!
Since it’s so easy for us to speak freely, without thinking, Hashem actually created every person with an natural reminder to be careful with his speech. The Orchos Tzaddikim3 points out that Hashem created the mouth with 2 gatekeepers: lips and teeth. Before any words can escape your mouth, they must pass through these 2 “gatekeepers” which “filter” what you say.
Before we open our lips to speak, and before we separate our teeth to articulate the words, we can think about how these 2 gatekeepers are meant to create a pause so that we have time to think before we speak. It’s best to keep our mouths closed at all times, and only open them after we have thought about the potential consequences of what we’re planning to say. Our words have such tremendous power that we have to make sure they will be used to create something productive, and not, chas veshalom, destroy relationships or be hurtful to other people.
Indeed, the Vilna Gaon4 writes that one should “seal his lips together, as tight as two millstones,” and Chazal5 teach us that for every moment that a person controls his speech, he merits a “hidden light” that no angel or other creature can even imagine.
A few weeks ago, we celebrated Hoshana Rabbah when we banged the aravos on the ground. Chazal teach us that the aravos are shaped like lips, and the Sfas Emes6 adds that actually, man was created with two lips (and we put two branches of aravos in our Lulav) because our lips have two different powers: The power to speak, and the power to remain silent.
Last week, we focused on the power of speech – using our words for positive purposes. This week, let’s focus on the power of silence. Let’s make an extra effort to remain silent for a few extra moments, and think about our words before we say them.
Sources:  Mishlei 18:21;  Mishlei 21:23;  Orchos Tzaddikim: Shaar HaShtikah;  Iggeres HaGra;  Midrash quoted in Iggeres HaGra;  Sfas Emes Sukkos 654
Every day, choose 1 hour to be extra careful with your speech.
At the beginning of the hour, say out loud (or think): “For the next hour, I will be extra careful with my speech. If I am tempted to say anything negative during this hour, I will choose to be SILENT instead, bli neder.”
EXAMPLES OF NEGATIVE SPEECH TO AVOID:
- Insulting another person
- Making fun of another person
- Using unrefined words
- Lashon hara (or even something that MIGHT be lashon hara)
- Something that might embarrass another person
(If it’s too hard for you to avoid all of these types of negative speech, just choose one type of negative speech to avoid.)
- Which animal stayed silent during the plague of the Death of the Firstborn in Egypt? (See Shemos 11:7)
- How were these animals later rewarded for their silence? (See Shemos 22:30 with Rashi)
- When was Aharon silent? (Vayikra 10:3)
- How was Aharon rewarded for his silence? (See Rashi on Vayikra 10:3)
- When did Moshe Rabbeinu tell the Jewish people: “Hashem will fight for you, and you will be silent”? (Shemos 14:14)
- According to Pirkei Avos 1:17, what will happen to someone who talks too much?
- When Moshe was receiving the Torah, Hashem told him about a certain Tanna who would later become a great teacher of Torah but would ultimately die a gruesome death. Moshe was shocked, but Hashem told Moshe to be silent and accept Hashem’s decisions. Which Tanna was it? (See Menachos 29b)
Questions to Ponder
- Sometimes we are required to speak up – such as when to rebuke someone who is doing something wrong – but sometimes it’s better to stay silent. How do you know when to speak up, and when to stay silent?
- Pirkei Avos (3:13) says that silence is “a fence” for wisdom. How is silence a fence for wisdom?
- Mishlei (18:21) says that “life and death are in the hands of the tongue.” What does that really mean? Can you think of any scenarios where words – or silence – can kill someone, or prolong someone’s life?
- Pirkei Avos (1:17) says that silence is “good for the body.” Why is silence good for the body? Wouldn’t we think that silence is just good for the soul?
- The Gemara writes that someone who is insulted and remains silent without insulting the person back is called “one who loves Hashem” and is compared to the setting sun. Why does the Gemara make this comparison? How is such a person similar to the setting sun?