As human beings, one of the things that differentiates us most from other living creatures is our ability to communicate with speech. Shlomo HaMelech tells us in Mishlei (12:25), “De’aga b’lev ish, yashchena” if one has a worry in his heart, he should quash it. Rashi notes that there are those who read the word “Yashchena,” as “yasichena,” from the root “siach,” which means to converse, as in “if one has a worry in his heart, he should talk it out [to others]”. The field of psychological science bears this out, as well, for we know the relief associated with being able to give words to our pain, and to have others receive those words nonjudgmentally and with empathy and compassion. This, of course, is the basis for talk therapy, and really any therapy in which words are exchanged.
Psychologically, the spoken word carries a tremendous weight. I often encounter patients who hesitate to give voice to their worries because they feel that saying things out loud makes them more real and tangible – and therefore more frightening. By the same token, verbal expression can also serve as a commitment to action. Deriving commitment from a patient or client to change or work toward changing a behavior is a big part of the beginning stages of therapy, and a key ingredient in behavior change at any point in the therapeutic process. In motivational interviewing, a therapeutic approach used to target changing specific behaviors, using techniques to encourage folks to verbally commit to change is at the center of the therapy. When we say we are going to do something, there is a potential reality that is created, and the urge we have is to follow through on actualizing that potential.
The role of language in our daily lives is often overlooked unless our ability to communicate is hindered or altered. Yet the power of speech is by far one of our most potent, and it is crucial that we not take it for granted.
Parshas Matos focuses on the power of verbal commitments through what seems at first glance to be a sixteen-Pasuk tangent about women who make nedarim and the cases in which they are liable to keep these nedarim or have them annulled by a father or husband. Wedged between a description of the Karbanos to be brought on Chagim and a vengeful war against Midiyan, this set of Halachos about nedarim seem rather out of place. What are these Pesukim teaching us?
In his book, Judaism’s Life-Changing Ideas, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z”l discusses these Pesukim at length. He notes that Judaism often emphasizes the importance of verbal commitments, not only through nedarim, but also in the case of marriage, where the groom must say the words, “harei at mikudeshes li…” when putting the ring on the bride’s finger under the Chuppah, a verbal pre-commitment to their impending marital status. And moreover, as is noted continuously by Rav Soloveitchik is his works (Halachic Man, as well as Lonely Man of Faith), Judaism is a covenantal community, based on a verbal commitment between us and G-d. We are people of our word, in addition to being people of the Book, which, incidentally, is fundamentally a recording of these covenants and verbal commitments. Rabbi Sacks notes that “we use language to bind our own future behavior… it is this use of language… to create something that didn’t exist before, that links us to G-d,” as we know Hashem used language to create the world (p. 235). A focus on nedarim is not only about being careful with promises and commitments and learning how and when they can be annulled; it is a reminder of the power of speech and its function in our lives.
I heard an incredibly powerful idea this week by R’ Eitiel Goldwicht, featured on the Meaningful Minute video made for the Three Weeks. We read three specific haftaras between Shiva Asar b’Tammuz and Tisha B’Av, and yet only one nicknames the entire Shabbos on which it is read, namely Shabbos Chazon. This Haftara begins with the words “Chazon Yeshayahu,” this was the vision of Yeshayahu the prophet. R’ Eitiel cited the Rav Elazar Rokeach, 17th century Chief Rabbi of Amsterdam and author of the sefer Maaseh Rokeach, who makes a unique observation about the other Haftaras read during this time period: The Haftara for last week, (Yirmiyahu 1:1-2:3), which was Parshas Pinchas for Chutz La’Aretz and Parshas Matos for Eretz Yisrael, starts with the words “divrei yirmiyahu,” these were the spoken words of Yirmiyahu. The Haftara for this Shabbos, which is Maasei in Eretz Yisrael and Matos-Maasei in Chutz La’Aretz, is from Yirmiyahu as well (2:4-2:28, 3:4) and begins with the words, “shimu d’var Hahem beis Yaakov,” hear/listen to the words of Hashem, Bnei Yisrael. The Rokeach notes that all three Haftaras highlight the ways we intake and output information – we can use our speech, our ability to hear/listen, and our vision, for better or for worse.
During these Three Weeks, we are in the mindset of Chorban. When seeking to understand why the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed, Chazal give various reasons. The Mishnah (in Avos 5:8-9) as well as the Tosefta in the end of Gemara Menachos cite idolatry, adultery, and murder as the cause for the destruction of the first Beis HaMikdash, and Sinas Chinam as the main reason for the destruction of the second. The Gemara (Yerushalmi Yoma 1:1, Bavli Yoma 9a-b) similarly points to Sinas Chinam as the cause of Chorban Bayis Sheini. Famously, the Gemara (Gittin 55b-56a) relates the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, an example of Sinas Chinam and of the role of Lashon Hara in contributing to the destruction. Other Talmudic sources attribute the destruction to other spiritual shortcomings, including failure to recite Shema or Birchas HaTorah, neglecting Torah study and education, and desecrating Shabbos.
With all of these possibilities, is there a common denominator that we can point to, and through which we can potentially be misaken the sins that caused the Chorban?
Perhaps the answer lies in these three Haftaras, as highlighted above. How we use our speech, our perception and vision, and our ability to hear and listen to each other and to G-d seems to underlie all of these possible grave sins. Sinas Chinam, hatred of our fellow Jew, begins with how we see each other. It is escalated when we fail to listen to one another, to really hear each other out, and even further by speaking Lashon Hara about each other. Furthermore, we know that Tisha B’Av was marked as a day of doom from the moment the Meraglim misused their powers of sight and speech to see and speak ill of Eretz Yisrael. Any failures related to Torah learning, reciting Shema, or saying Birchas HaTorah, can also be attributed to our power of speech. Seeing divine power in anything other than HaKadosh Baruch Hu, perceiving or envisioning other human beings as our source of safety or savior, is a misuse of that Koach, and can easily lead to idol worship. The Navi Yirmiyahu highlights this specifically, describing Hashem’s ire at Bnei Yisrael who “omrim li’even avi atah,” said to the stone, you are my father (Yirmiyahu 2:27). Of course, the sin of adultery also begins with a misuse of one’s power of sight.
Whether we are reciting our Brachos by rote, disregarding the word of Hashem, misperceiving our fellow Jew, failing to verbalize our Hakaras HaTov to each other or to Hashem, only seeing the negative in others or our lives, or failing to truly listen to each other, it is evident that we can certainly fall short when it comes to how we use these Kochos. And, we can also use these incredible abilities Hashem gave us to improve our relationships with each other and with our Creator, to right the wrongs that destroyed the Beis HaMikdash, and use these Kochos to merit its rebuilding.
This week, in honor of Parshas Matos and its Haftara specifically, let us strive to be mindful of our input and output. How are we using our powers of speech and hearing/listening? Let us use our ability to listen to actively engage more meaningfully and lovingly with one another, and our speech to commit to reigniting the spark between us and HaKadosh Baruch Hu and to doing all we can to redeem ourselves as a nation. Perhaps in this way, we can dedicate ourselves to more appropriately and effectively to using our other Kochos of sight and hearing to demonstrate our readiness for the Geulah Shelaima, BiKarov!