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Torah Attitude: Parashas Vayeishev: Erect a fence around the spoken word
Some commentaries explain that the Mishnah refers to "making a fence around one's words." The human being is unique in all of Creation as the only creature that can communicate through intelligent speech. G'd blessed us with this speech and thereby gave us a most powerful tool, both physically and spiritually. Joseph's evil report to Jacob regarding his brothers was one of the causes that brought about that the Jewish people had to go into bondage in Egypt. When one gossips, it is as if he kills three people. Someone who puts another person to shame is even worse than the gossiper. We learn from Tamar that one should let himself be thrown into the furnace rather than putting another person to shame. The Chofetz Chaim points out that the vast majority of confessions said on Yom Kippur relate to verbal sins. For any moment when a person closes his mouth, and refrains from saying what was on his mind, he will merit to benefit from the Hidden Light. A person who is careful about his speech will first of all have a good relationship with his fellow beings in this world, and will also be richly rewarded in the World to Come. By controlling our speech, we will also merit atonement for our sins and be spared from the punishment of Gehinom. All this teaches us the importance of erecting a fence around the spoken word in every situation.
In our last Torah Attitude, we discussed the need to erect fences to protect ourselves from falling into sin, as a pre-requisite to acquire Torah. We mentioned that some commentaries explain that the Mishnah refers to "making a fence around one's words."
When G'd created man, it says (Bereishis 2:7): "And man became a living being." The Targum Onkelus translates this to mean that man became a "speaking spirit". The human being is unique in all of Creation as the only creature that can communicate through intelligent speech.
Verbal blessings and destruction
G'd blessed us with this ability and thereby gave us a most powerful tool, both physically and spiritually. If we utilize it in the way that G'd intended, it will elevate us to the highest levels of spirituality; however, if misused it will bring us right down. It enables us to study Torah with others and to pray to G'd, and it gives us the opportunity to bless other people and express our care and concern for them. On the other hand, we can use the ability of speech to harm others and destroy them.
Gossip kills three people
The Torah prohibits cursing another human being (see Vayikra 19:14 and Rashi's commentary). The Sefer HaChinuch (231) writes that although we do not know how a verbal curse can affect another person, we know that it has the power to harm the cursed person in a very real way. Similarly, gossiping is very harmful. The Talmud (Erechin 15b) teaches that when one gossips, it is as if he kills three people: the one who says the gossip, the one who hears the gossip, and the victim who is being gossiped about.
Joseph's evil report
In this week's Parasha, we see how much calamity can come out of a piece of gossip. Joseph's evil report to Jacob regarding his brothers was one of the causes that brought about that the Jewish people had to go into bondage in Egypt (see Rashi Bereishis 37:2). The Chofetz Chaim explains that Joseph only had good intentions. He wanted Jacob to chastise the brothers for their misconduct. But Joseph made a mistake by going straight to his father with his report. He ought to have tried to speak to his brothers first. Had he done so, they would have explained their conduct and Joseph would have realized that they did nothing wrong. This is a very common phenomenon. People often misjudge other people's actions and get upset with them, or even worse, go around and gossip about them.
Verbal abuse prohibited
The Torah further commands (Vayikra 25:17): "And a man shall not aggrieve his fellow." The Talmud (Bava Metzia 58b) explains that this prohibition refers to verbal abuse. The Talmud gives several examples of speech that is hurtful. For example, one may not remind people of their past transgressions or other embarrassing aspects of their lives. We do not realize how hurtful our speech can be. People often think, "So I said something, but what is the big deal?" The Talmud (ibid) teaches that it is worse to hurt someone verbally than financially, for a monetary loss can be repaid; whereas the spoken word can never be erased. The damage caused by verbal abuse may last for a lifetime and can cause all sorts of psychological problems even years later. Just as gossip is considered like killing a person, the Talmud (ibid) teaches that someone who embarrasses another person in public is like a murderer. And from the severe punishment that is in store for someone who embarrasses his fellow being, we can see that someone who puts another person to shame is even worse than the gossiper. For this person will have no part in the World to Come (see also Pirkei Avos 3:11). With this insight we can well understand what King Solomon writes in Mishlei (18:21): "Death and life is in the power of the tongue."
Judah and Tamar
We find another incident in this week's Parasha that teaches how terrible it is to put another person to shame, and how far one must go to avoid doing so. The Torah relates how Judah had an intimate relationship with Tamar, his past daughter-in-law, not being aware who she was. Later, when Judah was informed that Tamar had committed harlotry and was pregnant, he condemned her to be burned. Tamar could have publicized that Judah himself was the father of the twins that she expected, but refrained from doing so in order not to embarrass Judah in public. Instead, she sent him the pledge that he had left with her and said, "I became pregnant by the man to whom these belong" (Bereishis 38:25). Rashi quotes from the Talmud (Sotah 10b) that states: "From this we learn that one should let himself be thrown into the furnace rather than putting another person to shame."
The Chofetz Chaim points out that the vast majority of confessions said on Yom Kippur relate to verbal sins. For our speech is our largest challenge. Very often we do not think about what we say and only realize afterwards how we spoke in an improper fashion, or harmed someone with our words. The Chofetz Chaim is known by this name because of his book entitled "Chofetz Chaim". His real name was Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan. In this book he teaches how one has to train oneself to guard one's tongue and learn what one may say and what one may not say. Many excellent books have been written on this subject in recent years. And many people spend a little time every day studying one of these books.
Merit to enjoy the Hidden Light
In his famous letter, the Vilna Gaon warns his family about the terrible punishment that awaits a person for transgressing even one sin related to speech. He adds that if the sin is committed in the synagogue, it is even more serious, especially if it happens on Shabbos or on the Festivals. On the other hand, he explains that for any moment when a person closes his mouth, and refrains from saying what was on his mind, he will merit to benefit from the Hidden Light that G'd hid away for the righteous at the time of Creation (see Rashi Bereishis 1:4).
Richly rewarded in the World to Come
This reward is so great, says the Gaon, that even the angels cannot fathom the extent of it. He quotes from Tehillim (34:13-14) where King David states: "Who is the man who desires life, who loves days to see good. Guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit." In this verse King David uses a double expression and speaks about "life" and "days". It seems that he refers to both this world and the World to Come. For a person who is careful about his speech will first of all have a good relationship with his fellow beings in this world, and will also be richly rewarded in the World to Come.
Guards from affliction
The Vilna Gaon continues to explain that by controlling our speech, we will also merit atonement for our sins and be spared from the punishment of Gehinom. He explains that this is the deeper meaning of what it says in Mishlei (21:23):"The one who guards his mouth and his tongue, guards himself from affliction."
Erect a fence in every situation
All this teaches us the importance of erecting a fence and being extremely cautious about what we say in every situation. In the next Torah Attitude we will, G'd willing, discuss why this is specifically important as a pre-requisite to acquire Torah.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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