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Not Just Numbers - The Sanctity of Speech - by Charles Shenitz

07/08/2015 10:27:45 AM


This past Monday, June 29 the 12th of Tammuz was the first yahrzeit for my father George Abraham Shenitz, Yosef Avraham ben Binyamin Halevi z"l. I presented a Torah learning session in memory of my father after daily morning services. I chose to focus on my father's ability to carefully choose his words on all occasions as the inspiration for the following lessons.

We note that the Hebrew name for the book of Numbers in which we find ourselves now for Torah reading is Bamidbar. The Hebrew noun midbar meaning desert or wilderness can be reassigned vowels for the consonants mdbr, and we arrive at midaber, simply meaning, speaking. It is interesting to note what the book of Bamidbar has to offer on the subject of speech, both proper speech and very much improper speech. We will highlight a few examples here. Most of the discussion to follow was taken from the book of Torah commentary by Rabbi Pinchas Winston, Perceptions.

The second Torah portion of the book of Bamidbar, Naso, offers three clear-cut examples of the use or misuse of speech. That portion contains the Priestly blessings, illustrating possibly the best example of the use of human speech, namely, to ask for a blessing from G-d for others. The portion also contains the strange and lapsed ritual for dealing with the suspected adulteress, the Sota. Classical rabbinical commentary links this situation of a confirmed adulterous to the misuse of speech to entice others into adultery. Finally, there is the segment about the Nazir, one who takes a vow to abstain from wine and to not cut his hair, ostensibly for the purpose of attaining greater spiritual heights. This last example in Naso can be deemed a positive use of speech.
It pays to pause in our survey of the Torah portions to state the following about human speech. The rabbis in both ancient and modern times view human speech as a special gift from G-d. After all, it separates us from the animals and makes human life potentially sacred whereas we cannot say the same at all for the rest of the animal kingdom. Therefore, misuse of speech is seen as a very grave sin. We will see this very clearly shortly and repeatedly.

In the portion of Shelach Lecha, Moses sends the 12 spies to scout ahead in the Land of Israel. Ten of the spies come back with a basically true report but a distorted, slanderous assessment of the Promised Land - only Joshua and Caleb give the proper, positive assessment and encouragement for the children of Israel. The slanderous report from the group of 10 leads the children of Israel to anguish and despair concerning the prospects for continuing on towards Israel. The Torah reports that it was a night of weeping. From the Rashi comment that says that G-d told the children of Israel that "you are weeping now so you shall continue to weep on this day for the many coming years", that day being the ninth of Av, we see that the ill use of speech to slander and to foment rebellion resulted in later tragedy throughout our history. This is of course in addition to the punishment immediately proclaimed, that all of the adults who came out of Egypt would die in the desert and not see the Promised Land, all of course except for Joshua and Caleb.  This punishment of continued traveling in the desert for a total of 40 years is well known.

The portion of Korach of course features the uprising instigated by Korach against Moses and Aaron, and thus against G-d. The Midrash adds many taunting and demeaning questions that Korach challenged Moses with regarding particular commandments of the Torah. For Korach's egregious misuse of speech, he was punished when "the Earth opened its mouth and swallowed" him and his followers, truly a punishment measure for measure, midah kineged midah, for sinning with one's mouth, for poor use of the human faculty of speech.

In Chukat, there is the well-known episode where Moses is commanded by Hashem to speak to the rock to draw water for the children of Israel who were complaining about the lack of such. Moses hits the rock in anger after castigating the children of Israel for their prolonged complaining. Water does come out, the mission of sensors fulfilled, but Moses and Aaron, who was by Moses’ side all along, are then punished. The two leaders are informed by Hashem that they will not be permitted to enter the land of Israel for failing to obey the Divine command. The usual lesson was well explained this past Shabbat at services at Har Tzeon, where the punishment for this seemingly slight offense is considered appropriate for exalted leaders of the people of Israel.  (It should also be noted that there are other explanations in rabbinic literature as to why Moses in particular was barred from entering the land of Israel.) A possible, deeper explanation of what transpired here was offered by Rabbi Winston, namely, that the use of speech in drawing water from the rock would have achieved a higher spiritual level and thus brought an increase in faith in Hashem to the Children of Israel. Alas, hitting the rock was a prosaic display of physicality and thus did not go towards increasing the people's faith or spirituality. (Compare this with the similar situation in the Book of Exodus 14:6 where Moses was commanded to hit the rock to draw water, and the mission was successfully carried out.  The physical action there was appropriate because the Children of Israel were on a lower spiritual plane then, being "the new kids in the desert!").

Let us skip for the moment to the last portion of Bamidbar, namely, Maasei. One has to say that there is not anything that immediately jumps out in this portion that would appear to pertain to speech. If we look closely at the very end of the portion, that is, the very end of the book, chapter 36 of Numbers, we see something interesting. Briefly, the daughters of Zelophchad do not get to inherit their father's land. Circumstances there motivate the other members of the tribe of Manasseh to speak up on behalf of the five daughters of the deceased Zelophchad, who left no male children (a male child inherits the family (father's) portion of land, and a female child inherits nothing according to the law as proclaimed up to that point).

If one reads that chapter carefully, one sees that the plea for some relief for modification in the law was carried out in a very orderly way, with tribe members approaching Moses and the chieftains (princes) with their case without recrimination or accusations, as happened in earlier events in Bamidbar. Moses then apparently seeks an answer to the difficult question from Hashem (explicit dialogue between Moses and Hashem is not recorded here). The answer from G-d (Numbers 36:5) is, "The plea of the Josephite tribe is just" (Etz Hayim, recent JPS year 2000 corrected translation). The unambiguous term of approval, expressed in the translation as "just" in the message handed down from Moses. This is the Divine message for this situation, for otherwise we might have anticipated simply a command such as, "speak to the children of Joseph (Manasseh) and instruct them ..." Our conclusion here is that this passage illustrates that the proper way of raising issues and engaging in discussion of Jewish law or other matters where there appears to be a conflict is to go to and through the proper authorities to discuss, and not to antagonize or foment rebellion or 'machlotet', divisiveness. (A further note on translation leading to "just" in 32:5 is presented below. In addition, we can appreciate an allowance for woman to inherit and own property under particular circumstances, although this salutary outcome of the situation is not part of our survey of the use of speech.).

May we all try to observe rules and principles of good speech to make sure that our precious human capability, the gift of speech from G-d, is properly used. 

Shabbat Shalom.


 Endnotes for further investigation

The interested reader may continue here to see other excerpts and topics that were not dealt with above. Some of these items are somewhat obscure relative to the main subject, the proper use of speech, and would have distracted from the flow of the main exposition above. In one famous case to be approached here, some surrounding issues would have been too distracting.
The first portion of the book of Bamidbar, itself named Bamidbar, was skipped in the survey of topics of speech because there is very little directly related to that subject of interest here. One claim is that the census taken in the portion  Bamidbar requires and implies speech to some extent but that seems to be a rather tenuous connection.
The portion of Behaalotcha of course includes the famous incident of Miriam and Aaron speaking in less than flattering terms about their brother Moses and his wife. There are different interpretations of what was said and why it was defamatory speech, other than the two siblings brazenly comparing their relationship to Hashem with Moses' relationship to Hashem. The upshot was that Miriam was struck with the plague of leprosy and had to be isolated outside the camp for seven days. This incident does seem to serve as the paradigm for the later rabbinical attribution of leprosy as a punishment for lashon hara, evil speech. Also, Moses' succinct, impassioned plea to G-d to heal Miriam is certainly worthy of note (Num. 12:13).
In the portion of Balak, in addition to the speeches of Bilaam, we find the quick, decisive action of Pinchas to a public display of immorality at the very end of the portion. The aftermath of this action, the high praise of Pinchas, takes place immediately following in the next portion, which bears his name. Of course, the immediate analysis of this event says that Pinchas is a man of action but no apparent significant use of speech is present in the text. The Midrash adds that Pinchas quickly consulted with Moses about the Law when the public, reprehensible, immoral act was taking place. Moses did confirm that the man and woman taking part in this act deserved to die, and thus Pinchas then acted decisively and effectively. In addition, along the lines of acts of speech and delving into some arcane analysis, Rabbi S. R. Hirsch pointed out that the first two letters in the Hebrew name Pinchas form the words "My mouth". The remaining letters of name, with a switch of sibilants at the end from samech to tsade, then read as the root of the word meaning drive or impel. Those we can read this in a more expanded form as, “G-d's command drove me to do this.”

The next to last portion, Matot, of the book of Numbers contains laws of upholding or on occasions nullifying oaths and vows. In other words, this portion clearly is included in our survey of the theme of speech within the book of Numbers. The final portion of Numbers, Maasei, was included above with the questions of inheritance for the daughters of Zelophchad. A fine-grained detail of the language will be looked at now.

We note that the Hebrew word kayn, just simply meaning 'yes' in today's modern idiom, is  a form of the root meaning just, upright, correct in Hebrew. (Other derived forms are kaynim and kaynut.) This appears to be part of the justification for the word ‘just’ appearing in the translation of what Moses brought back to those pleading the case.

In addition, to borrow one of the techniques of investigation and exposition of great commentators such as Rashi, we can look at Targum Onkelos, the ancient Aramaic translation that accompanies the text of the Torah in many printed editions. The rationale of course is that this ancient translation was much closer in time than our modern age to the writing of the original text of the Torah. The Aramaic word there corresponding to the Hebrew, kayn, and English 'correctly', is yaut (yaus, Ashkenazic, two syllables in either case). According to the authoritative dictionary of Marcus Jastrow on the ancient Aramaic language, the words 'yaut' has the meaning of 'propriety' (and right and correct, merely confirming most modern translations of that verse).

Finally it should be mentioned that the children of Israel complained and provoked Moses and Hashem on several occasions throughout the book of Bamidbar. Two of the six things to remember daily according to the Torah are the ways that the children of Israel "angered Hashem in 'the wilderness'" and what Hashem did to Miriam "when you departed from Egypt". These six remembrances are sometimes added at the end of the morning service, such as can be found in the Art Scroll Siddur.
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