Preserving the Power of Speech
Preserving the Power of Speech
If someone gave you a very powerful gift, you would treasure it and take care of it. You would read the manual, find out how it works, and what would cause damage to it. You would store it properly in order to preserve its strength. And you would use it in appropriate ways.
Of course, you would be grateful to the giver of such a gift. You would thank him for it and let him know how much you appreciate it. But the best display of gratitude would be using the gift to its capacity. In fact, every time you used it properly, it would be an active display of your appreciation.
When God created the human being, He formed him from the dust of the earth, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. The dust of the earth is the body of the human being, and the breath that God breathed into him is his soul. This combination of body and soul make man a “living being” (Bereishis 2:7) different than any other creation. Man was given two abilities that differentiate him from animals: Speech and intelligence.
Speech is not only unique to man, but it is what makes man unique: it provides a mechanism for connecting body and soul and translating intelligence and spirituality into physical reality. Verbalizing ideas transforms intangibles into tangibles. Spiritual ideas or feelings—prayer or kind thoughts—are made physically real with words. While some animals possess some form of intelligence, only man has the ability to understand and analyze what is happening in the world around him while maintaining a distinct sense of self. Speech gives each person tools to break down the walls of self and connect with others, to forge and maintain relationships of closeness and meaning.
Spiritually, intelligence gives man the ability to comprehend what is expected of him in this world, while speech allows him to communicate with his Creator.
Thus, to the anthropological tri-partite classifications of “animal,” “vegetable,” and “mineral,” the Talmud adds another category: “Speaker.” Thoughts, emotions, and yearnings are themselves expressions of intelligence. What differentiates man from animals is his ability to express those thoughts, emotions, and yearnings with language.
When God created the world, He did so with speech. “God said, ‘Let there be light!’ and there was light.”(Bereishis 1:3). Man, who was created in God’s image, creates realities in the same way that God does: Through the power of speech. Jewish tradition views words as holding power: Once something is said, the words bring about a change in the world. For instance, we often feel better after talking through a situation. Why is that so? In “reality,” nothing has changed, yet the act of talking changes the speaker—softens him, comforts him. Speaking words has the power to change what he feels. This is also true in Jewish law: Merely “saying something” can change the reality. For instance, when a woman blesses the candles, her words sanctify and usher in the Sabbath; in effect, she alters her reality—it was not the Sabbath, and now it is. When a groom utters a few words after placing a ring on his bride’s finger, he creates a marriage. Until he said the words, he was single; once they are out of his mouth, he is a married man.
Speech, then, creates realities. It effects connections between man and God, between one human being and another, between the ephemeral and the physical.
Thus far, we have dealt with the creation of positive realities, but speech retains equally the power to create negative realities, as well. Even to destroy. A child whose parents call him “stupid” will often act stupidly, even if he is reasonably intelligent: The word affects his perception of himself. And it goes without saying that harsh words spoken to another person create distance, distrust, and hatred—they can destroy closeness and meaning in the same way that they can create them.
The power of words ought to be intimidating: Once something destructive is said, it is nearly impossible to erase its effects. It is exceedingly difficult to not be affected—even ever-so-slightly—once gossip reaches one’s ears. Long after a fight is over and sincere apologies exchanged, words spoken in anger linger. No matter how many times we hear “But I didn’t mean it…”, we still believe that, in fact, he did. And that belief can eat away at trust, at love—to the great sorrow of the person who wishes he had been able to hold his tongue.
Just as speech can be used to create connections , it can it be used deliberately to produce disharmony and dislike. This is a great perversity—an abuse of the greatest gift given to us by God, the gift that defines our very humanity, the gift that differentiates us from animals. In fact, engaging in demeaning speech, gossip or meaningless conversation relieves one of his soul, thus leaving only his animal self. Such speech is an animalistic retreat from the Divine within us.
How do we preserve speech so that we remain human? Our Rabbis teach that “silence is the fence that protects speech.” Many times, in modern society, we speak merely to fill the void, to be noticed. This type of speech is empty: It has no content, no meaning, and cannot effect connections. Not exactly neutral, it actually can create negative realities. For instance, a natural “default” type of speech is the sharing of seemingly harmless “news”. Even completely unintentionally, this “sharing” ends up hurting people—violating privacy, twisting perceptions. With mere “chatter”—pleasant, idyll—it’s almost impossible to really gauge all of the possible impacts of what you’re saying.
Therefore, we must train ourselves to think before we speak—we ought to speak only words that are properly motivated, that are directed, purposeful, and well-thought-out. Prior to speaking, one ought to have the right intentions, have evaluated whether it is an appropriate time to speak, and be sure that one is being properly emotionally sensitive.
It is important to use clear language to convey ideas and intentions—language that isn’t vague, that isn’t cynical. Language should make clear that you value the listener. But the words must be sincere: People sense the truth. They intuit whether a speaker speaks from self-interest or from genuine caring: “Words that come from the heart enter the heart.”
Using vulgar language is demeaning to the speaker. Unrefined and crude words are an abuse of a Divine gift; moreover, they affect the way you think, relate, and act—to yourself and toward others. Low language conveys a lowness of spirit, even in an age that glorifies such degradation.
If vulgarities demean those around you, the most simple of words can elevate and join. A mere greeting—“Hello”—is a powerful acknowledgement of another human being. A smile and nod accompanied by a few friendly words is a kindness.
“God created man from dust of the earth and blew into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living being.” This living being—man—is a reflection of the Divine. As such, he was given the capacity to create realities through his speech and action. Also given freewill, he can choose whether to use his gift to imitate God or to align himself with the animal kingdoms. Every time he speaks, he chooses either to use the gift wisely and gratefully or to abuse it
Let us be mindful of our words and choose them well. May we be worthy of the gift we’ve been given.