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Speech Lessons

R' Abraham Twerski MD

How often do we regret something we said, whether in anger, as gossip, or in haste? Unfortunately, our words cannot be retracted, and we may lose joy in life because of unwise things we may say.

"And He breathed into his nostrils the soul of life, and man became a living soul" (Genesis 2:7). Onkeles translates the latter phrase as "a speaking soul," meaning that the distinctive feature of man that separates him from other living things is that man can communicate by speech. This unique ability that gives a human being his identity should be assiduously guarded.

The Talmud considers any violation of the laws of speech as being extremely grave. The outstanding sage of the previous generation, the Chafetz Chaim, dedicated his life's work to the purification of speech, and his book, "Shemiras HaLashon" (Guarding Speech), is not only mandatory reading for every person, but must be reread periodically. We engage in speech during much of our waking life, and unless we are extremely watchful, we may transgress some of the most serious prohibitions of the Torah.

It is self-evident that observing the laws governing speech results in character refinement. However, because of the extreme vulnerability to abuse the gift of speech, we will follow in the path of the Chafetz Chaim to emphasize the importance of vigilance.

The Midrash says that lashon hara is destructive to three people: the speaker, the listener, and the object of the speech. The Talmud categorizes lashon hara as being equivalent to the three cardinal sins: idolatry, adultery and murder... One is also in violation of "lifnei iver" (causing another person to sin), because one who listens to lashon hara is also guilty of the sin. Similarly, one who listens to lashon hara is also in violation of "lifnei iver," because without a receptive listener, the lashon hara would not have been spoken.

What kind of gratification is there that causes a person to speak lashon hara? I believe that by degrading another person, one has a feeling of superiority, that he is in this particular respect better than the other person. Seen this way, speaking lashon hara indicates that one has low self-esteem and resorts to lashon hara to relieve his feelings of inferiority.

Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach noted that one is prone to listen to lashon hara about a person who lied, cheated, or misbehaved, but one is less interested to hear lashon hara about a murderer. This is because a person is comforted when he hears that others have the same character defects as himself. Inasmuch as one is not a murderer, one does not gain anything by hearing lashon hara about a killer. This should put a person on the alert. Listening to lashon hara about someone is essentially a public confession that one shares the guilt.

One Shabbos, the Chafetz Chaim lodged at an inn, and the innkeeper, not knowing his identity, seated him at a table with several other guests who were horse traders. At every meal, the conversation was about horses. After Shabbos, someone informed the innkeeper of the identity of this guest. The innkeeper apologized to the Chafetz Chaim for having exposed him to such unrefined company. The Chafetz Chaim, "To the contrary, I was very pleased to sit with them. You see, they spoke only about horses, not about people!"

While one can do teshuvah and rectify most transgressions, it is more difficult to do teshuvah for lashon hara. If one shakes loose the feathers of a pillow, it is very difficult to retrieve them. So it is with lashon hara. Once defamatory remarks have been made about someone, it is virtually impossible to retrieve and undo them.

Another aspect of speech that the Torah stresses is truth. For no other transgression does the Torah require precautionary steps, but in regard to lying the Torah says, "Distance yourself from a false word" (Exodus 23:7). The Torah reinforces the prohibition of lying by requiring that a person avoid doing anything that may possibly lead to lying. This can be a golden rule for human behavior: "If you think that at some time you may have to deny having done something, do not do it!" This constitutes "distancing" oneself from a false word. Observing this dictum can eliminate many problems, and is a major contribution to character refinement.

Rabbi Yosef Kahaneman, related that the Chafetz Chaim once sent for him and said, "I have just sold a number of my books and I have some money. Some people who ask me to lend them money are completely untrustworthy, and never repay a loan. One is not obligated to lend money to dishonest people. However, I cannot tell them that I do not have any money, because that is a lie. Therefore, I want to give you all my money as a legally-binding gift, so when I say that I do not have any money, I will not be lying."

Rabbi Yechezkel Levenstein was a close friend and admirer of Rabbi Yitzchok Sher. When the latter died, it was assumed that Rabbi Levenstein would eulogize him, but to everyone's astonishment, he refused. He later explained, "Just recently I lost a dear grandchild. I felt that in my eulogy I might be overcome with the grief over my grandchild, and I might cry. The audience would think that I am crying because of the death of Rabbi Sher, and I would be guilty of giving a false impression."

In pursuit of truth, a person should not deceive himself. A person should realize that rationalizing and explaining away his behavior is essentially lying, if only to himself. Absolute honesty is the crown of character refinement.

Another important aspect of speech is keeping one's word. "Whatever has passed your lips you shall keep and do, as you have vowed" (Deuteronomy 23:24).

Words should not be treated lightly. If one says, "I promise I'll return it tomorrow," and then delays returning it, one has transgressed this mitzvah. Sometimes one says, "I swear that I did it," or "So help me God." These are vows and must be taken very seriously. The Talmud says that when God said, "You shall not take the Name of the Lord, your God, in vain" (Exodus 20:7), the earth trembled.

Our sages cautioned that one must be careful when promising something to a child. Sometimes one may entice a child to do something or to refrain from doing something by saying, "I'll give you something" or "I'll take you somewhere." Failure to keep a promise, even to a child, is a transgression. Furthermore, it teaches a child to be dishonest.

Meaningful relationships are built on trust. If one fails to keep a promise, one undermines the quality of the relationship, whether with a family member or a stranger.

I would like to elaborate on the latter point. Early in my psychiatric training, I had a patient who was a hypochondriac, constantly complaining of various aches and pains. I was certain that he was simply trying to obtain pain-relieving medication, and that he really was not in pain. I told the nurse to give him a placebo, which is an inert pill or injection that contains no medication at all. I was surprised when the nurse said, "Our policy is not to give placebos," because during my internship in general medicine we did use placebos.

Upon my inquiry for the reason for this policy, the director of the department said, "Words are not the only means of communication. We communicate by body language as well as verbally. While you can control what you say, you have little control over your body language. If you give a patient a placebo, your verbal communication is, 'I am giving you something,' but your body language will say, 'I am giving you nothing.' Your patient will get both messages, and he will lose trust in you."

I must admit that prior to this, I probably did my share of "justified" lying, i.e., white lies to preserve peace. With this insight, I have refrained from lying for one simple reason: I am not a good liar!

The events of recent years have proven the value of truthfulness. One president of the United States was toppled from office because of his attempt to cover up a bungled break-in, and another president humiliated his office by improper behavior and neared impeachment because he lied. I am convinced that truthfulness, even if temporarily costly, in the long run is conducive to simchah -- a life of true joy.

Reprinted with permission from Innernet, and excerpted with permission from "Simchah: It's Not Just Happiness." Published by Shaar Press, distributed by Mesorah Publications Ltd.



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