The Sanctity of Speech
The beginning of this week’s parsha speaks to us concerning vows. What exactly are vows? When someone wants to prohibit himself from using a certain object, or from eating something in particular, he can pronounce the words, “This object is forbidden to me.” At that point it becomes forbidden for him to use or benefit from that object. How long does the prohibition last? Until he goes to a Torah scholar and is released from his vow.
From this we see just how great and sanctified speech truly is. It can change reality, instantly transforming something that is permitted into something forbidden. Enormous power is thus hidden in speech, both for better and for worse. Do we need further proof of the sanctity of speech?
At the beginning of the parsha it is stated, “When a man vows a vow to the L-RD…he shall not profane his word. According to all that proceeds from his mouth, he shall do” (Numbers 30:3). The Sages interpreted the phrase, “He shall not profane his word” to mean: “Let him not make his words profane.” He must accomplish everything he says because a person’s words are sacred. Hence if someone explicitly says that he is going to do something, but does not, he has uttered his words in vain. He has quite simply profaned his words, and one day he will be punished for it.
My friends, my dear brothers, these few remarks should suffice to prove to each and everyone the power that a few words have to exert a perpetual influence on things. What we have said up to now is all that is needed to demonstrate just how much importance we should attribute to each word emerging from our mouths, in order that they should have a beneficial effect, not a detrimental one. In fact when we utter a word, it becomes impossible to take it back; it has already been released, and what has been done cannot be undone.
This is a fitting place to recount a well-known incident that occurred to the disciples of the holy Rebbe of Pshischa, Rabbi Simcha Bunim, may his merit protect us. One day the Rebbe of Pshischa called several of his disciples and told them to go on a journey. He said that upon arriving at a certain place, they would understand why they had been sent. Thus they took to the road, without knowing where their steps were leading them. Towards nightfall his disciples arrived at an inn by the side of the road, where they decided to stay for the night.
The innkeeper welcomed them with great honor, setting up a table and serving them fine dishes of meat to replenish them after their day’s journey. At that point, however, some of the disciples turned to the innkeeper and began asking him all sorts of questions. “Who’s the shochet here? Is he reliable? Did he slaughter the animal according to all the stringencies of Halachah? Was there a rav who checked the knife from time to time? Can we trust his shechita?”
All of a sudden, a faint voice was heard from near the stove: “Gentlemen, gentlemen! May your ears listen to what your mouths are saying. You’re asking many questions with regards to what enters your mouths, engaging in all kinds of inquiries. But do you do the same kind of checking when it comes to what leaves your mouths [a reference to speech], to determine whether it is permitted to say or not?” As soon as Rabbi Simcha Bunim’s disciples heard that, they understood that it was solely for this reason that their Rav had sent them there.
All this should instill us with a new way of looking at things, a completely different way of thinking about what we say. It should infuse us with a sense of the holiness of words, and it should make us think about what we are actually saying. When we look at what our Sages said regarding this subject, we find dozens and even hundreds of instructions concerning the sanctity of speech and the extreme attention that we must give to it.
Concerning the command, “You shall speak of them” (Deuteronomy 6:7), our Sages said: “Of them you may speak, but not of other things” (Yoma 19b). This means that a person must constantly speak of holy things, not forbidden subjects, for if he gives free reign to his tongue, he will allow himself to say everything that comes to mind. In that case, “Sin will not be lacking” (Proverbs 10:19), as King Solomon, the wisest of all men, said. Forbidden speech leads to sin, and it is only by guarding one’s tongue that a person can protect himself. Do we need anything more than the teachings of the Chafetz Chaim, who composed an entire book devoted to the subject of guarding the tongue and the power of speech? The Sages said, “The curse of a Sage, though uttered without cause, takes effect” (Makkot 11a). This means that when a tzaddik says something, Hashem takes his words into consideration, even if they were said unintentionally.
In addition, we find in our parsha (Parsha Masse, the second one that we read this Shabbat) something that is completely incredible. Parsha Masse deals with cities of refuge. An individual who had unintentionally killed another person was to flee to one of these cities of refuge, and there he would stay until the death of the High Priest. Once the High Priest died, the killer could return to his home. Now since every killer living in a city of refuge wanted to return home as quickly as possible, such individuals were liable to pray to the Holy One, blessed be He, for the death of the High Priest, thus enabling them to regain their freedom. This is the reason, say the Sages, why the mother of the High Priest would provide food and drink to those killers living in cities of refuge. She did this so they would not pray for the death of her son. Can we grasp the meaning of this? The Holy One, blessed be He, listens to the prayer of everyone. Even when a killer prays, addressing his words to Hashem, He listens to his prayer, which in this case might provoke the death of a High Priest! This is why the mother of the High Priest would provide nourishment to killers living in cities of refuge, which tempered their reasons for praying for the High Priest’s death. This teaches us the power of speech, the influence that a word can have, either for good or for bad. We must use this sacred power to our advantage and only utter sanctified and permitted words. That will be our reward. Amen, may it be so.