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Shabbat Parashat Matot 5776

Parashat Hashavua: The Power of Speech

Harav Yosef Carmel

Our parasha begins with the laws that arise from oaths, especially in the context of family relationships. That makes it a good time to discuss the power of one’s speech. Based on the power the Torah gives to a person’s oaths, things that he says can change matters on the ground in many ways.

The power of speech is stressed as early as the story of creation. “Hashem created man, dirt from the earth, and He blew into him the soul of life, and man became a nefesh chaya (lit., a living spirit).” Unkelus (who provides a quite literal translation, with cases of anthropomorphisms being common exceptions) translates the end of the pasuk as “spirit that speaks.”

On one hand, oral communication is not unique to humans, as many species have the ability to make sounds with which they communicate. There are many different forms of communication among species throughout the world, on the ground, in the air, and even in the sea. We might note that whales can send and receive sounds over great distances. The matter is that speech is not just the ability to communicate within a social setting. Man is able to express himself in abstract matters and to connect to Hashem through Torah. At the time when prophecy was prevalent, speech had an additional function in connecting to Hashem, and even imagination was involved in accepting divine messages.

The higher and more developed a person’s abstract thinking is, the deeper he can go in his Torah study. This ability allows one the merit of being a partner in developing Torah through the generations, which even makes him a partner of sorts with Hashem, through the powerful medium of the Oral Torah. This finds expression, first through the spoken word and only later through the written word, as the Oral Law was allowed to be written only later in history and only reluctantly. Man’s involvement in this process makes him unique and the crown of creation. This requires him to guard the sanctity and purity of his thoughts and his speech, and the importance of this matter cannot be overstressed, for these are the utensils for his connection to Torah and the Divine Presence. (Protection of what one looks at is also a critical value.)

Since speech enables creativity, it is no surprise that oaths are an important subject that the Torah stresses, as we find in our parasha. The negative commandment against violating that which one accepted upon on himself by means of an oath is “lo yachel,” perhaps best translated as do not de-sanctify. This same root is used to describe the harming of the relationship between early humanity and Hashem, which k’v’yachol chased away the Divine Presence (Bereishit 4:26). The midrash (Bereishit Rabba 23) sees the root as connected to rebelliousness, as it is used in the context of the pre-flood generation (Bereishit 6:1) and of Nimrod (ibid. 10:8).

The idea is apparently that preventing involvement in spirituality on a deep level is rebellious against Hashem. At some point in the future, we will discuss the connection between idolatry, murder, and adultery/incest and between the ability to speak and think abstractly. In the meantime let us pray that we will merit fixing our shortcomings in these important areas.

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