Positive Speech Builds a Brighter World
By Rabbi Pinchas Avruch
This week's Torah portion, Noach, is replete with conspicuous lessons of
G-d's treatment of evil in the world. The most hedonistic, self-serving
society in the history of the world is annihilated in a flood, and nature is
permanently changed with the introduction of seasons and, with them,
shortened life spans. The next generation, while unified, builds a tower to
go to the heavens to fight G-d, so G-d introduces languages and ethnicities
into the world. Even Noah's misuse of the vine generates a curse for one
third of humanity.
Yet, for all of these glaring messages, one of the most profound messages is
subtly nestled in the narrative of the initial stages of the flood. In G-d's
instruction to Noah and in the account of Noah's follow through on his
orders (Beraishis/Genesis 7:2 and 8) the Torah describes G-d's command that
Noah take seven pairs of the animals which are clean ("tehora") and two of
the animals which are not clean ("lo tehora" and "ainena tehora"). Our
tradition teaches us that the Torah does not have any extra words or even
any extra letters. There is a unique Hebrew word for "unclean" ("tamai");
why is it not used? Why does the Torah expend eight extra letters (in the
Hebrew text) to say "not clean" instead of "unclean"?
The Talmud in the Tractate Pesachim (3a) introduces verse 8 as a proof in
discussing the concept a person should never utter a coarse expression.
Rashi on the Talmud notes that the alternative expressions are not
inherently coarse, but that one who is wise always searches for a bright and
clean articulation. Maharsha (acronym for Moreinu Harav [our teacher, the
Rabbi] Shlomo Eidels of Ostroh, Poland; 1555-1632; Rosh Yeshiva/Dean and
Rabbi in a number of leading communities of Poland; author of monumental
commentaries on the Babylonian Talmud) questions the conclusion of the
Talmud; the extra verbiage is only indicative of a lesson to be drawn if it
is unique, but the existence of extra wording in both verses 2 and 8
indicates it is the norm. Maharsha resolves his own challenge with a lesson
found in Tractate Bava Basra; verse 2 is teaching us to refrain from
speaking disparagingly of animals, even animals which are not of Kosher
G-d is about to send a flood that will forever alter the course of life on
earth. Thousands upon thousands of people and animals will die. The entire
earth will be buried under tons of hot water that will cover the highest
mountains by 25 feet, forever altering the geology and topography of the
planet. The world will be uninhabitable for an entire year! And in the
course of all of this - right NOW - G-d needs to teach us that refined
people choose their speech carefully, even when discussing animals?
Yes. The world was destroyed because of the breakdown of ethics and fair
play. The Medrash relates that the people of Noah's time would steal in
legally insignificant amounts, to avoid legal recourse. These behaviors
reflect the corruption within and concretize it further. Negative speech is
no different. It is a reflection of our cynicism and frustration and serves
to legitimize and perpetuate them. Rashi is telling us that one whose life
effort is striving for G-dliness and maintaining a "G-d consciousness" in
all his actions does not just avoid crass expressions, but tries to
maintains a bright, positive outlook, an attitude that is manifest in his
speech. And this attitude is directed at all of G-d's creations, whether
they are used in our service of Him or not, whether they are Kosher or not.
Our gift of speech is like a fire. With it we have the power to warm and
foster growth or, Heaven forbid, destroy. Let us use this precious, unique
gift to build a bright and positive world.
Have a good Shabbos!
Copyright © 2001 by Rabbi Pinchas Avruch and Project Genesis, Inc.
Kol HaKollel is a publication of the Milwaukee Kollel Center for Jewish
Studies 5007 West Keefe Avenue; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; 414-447-7999