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Torah Attitude: Parashas Noah: Refined language is the key
Prior to the flood, G'd told Noah to build an ark in order to save him and his family from being punished with the rest of the world. Why did G'd decide to destroy the whole world if only the human beings had sinned? We should be careful to use refined language in our daily lives and not be influenced by the gross language of the street. The Rabbis understood the nature of their students by analyzing the language that they used. The Jewish people merited to be redeemed from the bondage in Egypt for four reasons, including that they did not change their language. In ghettos it was relatively easy to keep up the standard of the Jewish language without being influenced by the surrounding societies. One of the first signs of this kind of media infiltration is when we catch ourselves and our children using a language that is not befitting for a holy nation chosen by G'd to be a light for all nations. Refined language is the key to a Torah style of speech. A righteous person will always praise their fellow beings and honour them for their positive sides. "If it is wrong to speak in negative terms about a dead dog, how much more should one be careful only to speak in positive terms about one's fellow human beings." "Help us that we should only see the merits of our friends and not their deficiencies." Just as our ancestors in Egypt kept themselves above their contemporary society by using a refined language, so must we realize the importance of following in their footsteps.
In this week's Torah portion the Torah relates how the world had sunken into immorality and dishonesty. G'd therefore decided to destroy the world and its population through a great flood. Prior to the flood, G'd told Noah to build an ark in order to save him and his family from being punished with the rest of the world.
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 108a) asks why did G'd decide to destroy the whole world. Only the human beings had sinned. The animals did not sin. The Talmud answers with a parable. A certain gentleman prepared an elaborate wedding for his son. He built a magnificent canopy and prepared a festive meal with many dishes for the special occasion. Unfortunately, the groom passed away before the wedding took place. In his grief, the father dismantled the canopy and gave all the food away. All the while, he kept saying: "What is the purpose of all this? I prepared it all for my son. Now that he died, what do I need it for?" In the same way, says the Talmud, G'd said: "I created all the animals for the benefit of man. Now that man has sinned, what is the purpose of all the animals?" The Talmud further relates that the people were so corrupt that they cohabited with the animals and experimented with all kinds of cross-breeding amongst the different animals. The Midrash Rabba (28:8) explains that even the animals had been influenced by the corruption of human beings and were cross-breeding among themselves. But also amongst the animals there were some who only cohabited with their own species. G'd wanted to save these animals and instructed Noah to take two of each of the impure species and seven of the pure species along with him into the ark.
Avoid gross language
As Noah saw the rain starting to fall, he and his family entered the ark. The Torah describes how the animals also arrived at that point. As it says (Bereishis 7:8-9), "Of the pure animals and of the animals that is not pure … two by two they came to Noah into the ark, male and female, as G'd had commanded Noah." The Talmud (Pesachim 3a) points out that this is an unusual expression. In general, the Torah instructs in short and concise language and describes an unkosher animal as being impure (see Vayikra 11:4-8). If so, why did the Torah here describe it as an animal that is not pure? The Talmud answers that this comes to teach us how we should be careful to use refined language in our daily lives and not be influenced by the gross language of the street. Although every letter in the Torah is accounted for, nevertheless, in order to teach this lesson, the Torah here uses an extra eight letters to avoid referring to these animals in a degrading way. When the Torah instructs us about one of the commandments, the Torah usually uses the briefest language for the sake of clarity. However, here the Torah is relating to us an event that took place and therefore uses the most refined language possible.
Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai
The Talmud continues to relate different instances how the Rabbis understood the nature of their students by analyzing the language that they used. In one instance, two students were sitting by Hillel. One of them asked a halachic question, "Why is it that when we pick grapes, we have to be careful to put them into pure utensils; whereas when we pick olives we do not need to make sure to use utensils that are pure?" The other student asked the same question, but formulated his inquiry slightly different. He said, "Why is it that we have to be careful to pick grapes in pure utensils; but we can pick olives in defiled vessels?" Said Hillel, "I am certain that the first student is going to be a leading halachic authority of the Jewish people." This student was none other than Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai, who soon after started to dispense halachic rulings. Many generations later another famous leading halachic authority was very particular that people should only use refined language. Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz, know as the Chazon Ish, once heard someone saying to another person "You are telling a lie." The Chazon Ish gently reprimanded him and said: "You should rather say you are not telling the truth."
The Midrash Rabba (Vayikra 32:5) teaches that the Jewish people merited to be redeemed from the bondage in Egypt for four reasons. One of the reasons, says the Midrash, is because they did not change their language. The simple meaning of this is that they continued to speak Hebrew among themselves. However, the commentary, Maor Vashemesh, interprets this to mean that the Jewish people kept themselves above the Egyptian immoral society and were careful only to use a refined language.
For many centuries throughout our long and bitter exile the Jewish people were confined to ghettos. They lived amongst themselves and had very little contact with the outside world. Under such circumstances, it was relatively easy to keep up the standard of the Jewish language without being influenced by the surrounding societies.
In our day and time, all barriers have been broken down, and we often mix with our gentile acquaintances. Under such circumstances, it takes a lot more effort to keep above the culture and language spoken around us. When we add to this the media that infiltrate our homes, we cannot be careful enough to watch out how to protect ourselves from these subtle but powerful influences. The negative influence of the media on adults, and even more so children, has been proven many times. With the constant development of the internet, this threat has taken on unprecedented dimensions and it takes a tremendous effort to keep up the need to protect ourselves and our children from the filth that infiltrate our homes. One of the first signs of this kind of influence is when we catch ourselves and our children using a language that is not befitting for a holy nation chosen by G'd to be a light for all nations.
Refined language is the key to a Torah style of speech. A person who is careful only to use refined language will be less likely to speak derogatory about his fellow human beings. Such a person will also be more careful not to cause any harm with his speech or abuse someone verbally.
Righteous always praise
King Solomon says (Mishlei 28:12): "When the righteous [have success] and are happy there will be a lot of beauty; but when the wicked get up [and are in charge] everyone will be investigated." Rabbeinu Yonah (Gates of Repentance 1:18) explains that this verse teaches us that a righteous person will always praise their fellow beings and honour them for their positive sides. On the other hand, a wicked person will look for other people's faults and drag them down for their mistakes.
Pious master and students
Similarly, the Duties of the Hearts (Gate of Submission Chapter 6) relates a story about a pious person who was travelling with his students. Suddenly they came across a dead dog that had a very foul smell. "How smelly this carcass is" said the students. "What beautiful white teeth it has" commented the master. Obviously, the pious master wanted to train his disciples only to use refined language and speak positively. Says the Duties of the Hearts, "If it is wrong to speak in negative terms about a dead dog, how much more should one be careful only to speak in positive terms about one's fellow human beings."
Only see positive sides
The Talmud (Bava Basra 123a) teaches a similar lesson based on this week's Torah portion. Says the Talmud: "If the Torah would not describe an impure animal in degrading terms, for sure the Torah would not refer to any person in a degrading way." Many people constantly criticize everyone and everything. The Torah clearly teaches us not to talk like that. The great Chassidic Rebbe Rabbi Elimelech of Lichensk guides us in this direction. In the prayer he wrote it says: "Help us that we should only see the merits of our friends and not their deficiencies." Someone who only sees the positive sides of his fellow beings will also talk accordingly.
Just as our ancestors in Egypt kept themselves above their contemporary society by using a refined language, so must we realize the importance of following in their footsteps. In this way we help our children and grandchildren to continue in our ways as we give them a Jewish education and create a Jewish atmosphere in our homes. The more careful parents and educators are in their choice of words and language, the better is the chance that our children will understand that they are part of a special nation and they will continue to live as proud Jews when they eventually grow up and start their own homes.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network