The creation of the human is described in Genesis. “And the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the earth, and He blew into his nostril a soul of life, and man became a living being.” (Genesis 2:7)
As a result of God’s input of a soul of life man became ‘alive.’ This is the literal translation and the most obvious interpretation of the verse. Onkelos, however, in his Aramaic translation which appears in almost every modern edition of the chumash, translates the final phrase differently. “And man became a speaking spirit.” According to Onkelos’s interpretation the breath and soul that God put into man turned him into… a being that can speak. In other words, what sets man apart from other creations of God, what is unique and human-like about mankind, is the ability to speak.
Almost all creatures communicate in some fashion, and many creatures communicate through sound. No other being, however, has the capacity to develop and speak a language with many tens of thousands of words, expressing through these words deep thoughts, emotional feelings and intellectual reasoning. In this ability the human stands apart, far apart, from other beings created by God.
As with every gift, the gift of speech comes with a charge to use it responsibly. And as with every other power, the power of speech has uses for good, uses for evil and many uses that are seen as neutral. Numerous Mitzvot require the use of speech. Blessings and prayers are most often recited verbally. On Yom Ha’atzmaut, coming up this week, those who view the modern state of Israel as God’s gift and the start of the Messianic process will express praise and gratitude to God through the recitation of Hallel. We recently conducted the Pesach Seder, in which we performed the Mitzvah of telling the story of the Exodus. The Hagaddah, in addition to recounting the story of the Exodus, states that “anyone who expands the telling of the story of the Exodus from Egypt is praiseworthy.” Elaboration is encouraged – and this is not referring to new explanations and deeper understandings in the text, it is referring to the story. Telling the story in as much detail as can be done, reliving the experience through an expanded narrative, is praiseworthy. We are called upon to use our gift of speech to perform this Mitzvah.
There are, however, other uses of speech which are negative and which violate commandments of the Torah. The Midrash teaches us that there are 7 sins that bring tzara’at, the leprosy-like disease discussed in this week’s Torah reading. Among those sins is the abuse of speech, communicating slander and harming others with spoken words. But there is an additional facet to speech. Aside from the positivity or negativity of speech, our communication reflects our values and aspirations. A new language has emerged in the last decade with the proliferation of social media. Our approval or disapproval of ideas and images are expressed through a “like” or through images of a smile or frown, a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. This language has spread even to those of us who are not users of social media. Windows 10 generates images that appear on the screen before logging in. It gives the user the opportunity to give feedback on whether that image is appreciated or not, and future images are selected on the basis of that feedback. Our daughter, who has never used social media, is quick to exclaim “like it, like it!” when a pretty image shows up on our cover screen.
A verse in Proverbs augment the concept of this type of communication reflecting our values. “The refining pot is for silver, the crucible for gold, and humans, according to their praise.” (Proverbs 27:21)
The verse details different means of ascertaining the purity of different materials. A refining pot is useful to discern impure alloys in silver. The purity of gold is measured in a crucible. The verse also addresses humans. What reflects the state of a person? How can a person’s purity be measured? Proverbs teaches us that a person’s character can be measured by looking at what the person praises. What does one “like?” To what images, ideas and phrases will one affix a thumbs-up? A person’s values are reflected by one’s praises. Everybody has idols. We think highly of certain people or ideals, and these values are reflected through our promotion of these same ideals. We are social beings, and we talk about things we believe in. We also tend to denigrate ideas we feel are rubbish. Today, more than ever before, these reactions are disseminated widely and cannot be retrieved if one has a change of heart. While a tweet can be deleted, there is no guarantee that the tweet has not been retweeted, or captured by a screenshot and forwarded.
The second chapter of Avot opens with a Mishnah authored by the great Rabbi Judah the Prince. He concludes his Mishnah with an offering of advice to deter one from straying from the values of the Torah. “Know what is above you: a watchful eye, a listening ear, and all your deeds are recorded in a book.” Never before have these words been so relevant. Written nearly two millennia ago, and referring to an idea basic to Jewish faith, Rabbi Judah the Prince admonishes us to bear in mind the potential power and permanent nature of anything we communicate.
As a disease tzara’at no longer appears among us. It was abolished when the causes of tzara’at became too rampant for the disease to be a rarity from which people took a lesson. But the destructive power of slander and defamation has never been more apparent than it is now. The gift of communication by words, the unique attribute of mankind, endows us with a grave responsibility.
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