November 28, 2023 ()
Words have the power to be an instrument of peace—or to cut like a knife.
There are many incidents in the Bible that illustrate the power of speech to either damage or heal. The serpent in the Garden of Eden causes temptation through speech; Miriam develops leprosy after speaking lashon hara – gossip – about her brother; and Korach’s rebellious army is consumed inside the “mouth of the earth” after speaking out against Moses. On a more positive note, in the Song of Songs, King Solomon describes how a woman’s virtue manifests through her words, saying: “She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the law of kindness is on her tongue.”
The Torah repeatedly demonstrates the value of effective communication and reinforces the tenet that every toastmaster graduate knows – it’s all in the presentation. While leading the Jewish people toward the promised land of Israel in his final days, Moses eloquently delivers one of the most stirring orations in the Torah. He encourages the Jewish nation to overcome their difficulties and wisely guides them towards the future.
Our sages relay that Moses developed a speech impediment in childhood. To spare him embarrassment, his brother, Aaron, delivered many of Moses’ discourses. For his farewell address, however, Moses spoke directly to the Israelites. His words were fierce and poetic, so that they would be remembered and ensure that the Israelites fully understood their covenant with G-d. In his speech, Moses recapped the first four books of the Torah. Through this recounting, he retraced the steps of his personal life journey, displayed his tremendous spiritual growth, and showed that it is never too late to improve oneself. Reflection, repentance, improvement and change can occur, even at the very end of life.
From his early years as a stuttering toddler, to the moral tests of his youth in Pharaoh’s palace, to his trials as the leader of a wandering people, to his ultimate, inspiring address to the nation at the threshold of the Holy Land, Moses demonstrates that a human being can climb mountains, overcome obstacles, and master fears. How is this accomplished? As Moses himself stresses in his final speech, one can conquer hardships and achieve self-mastery through connecting to the Creator and striving to live according to Torah values.
What we say and how we say it matters. Good communication — choosing the right words and using proper inflection — brings people together and allows them to live and work in harmony. When people cannot communicate well, chaos ensues, as it did at the Tower of Babel, when the Creator caused the people to speak countless different languages in order to thwart their mission against Him. During the time of the supreme rabbinical court, judges were expected to know numerous languages, so as to ensure that justice reigned and peace prevailed among a variety of people.
Communication can go beyond words. We communicate non-verbally by using our facial features, body language, and tone of voice. Today communication is instantaneous, thanks to e-mail and text messaging. We are never out of reach or out of touch. Many Jews look forward to Shabbat, the weekly day of rest, so that they can turn off their electronic gadgets and enjoy privacy and quiet.
During the High Holidays, Jews initiated a marathon of spiritual communication with the Almighty. We confessed our sins out loud and promised to improve our behavior and refine our souls. To ensure another chapter in the Book of Life, we asked forgiveness from those we may have wronged, intentionally or not, and forgave those who mistreated us. We searched for the courage to change our ways.
Through his words and actions, Moses, one of the greatest leaders of the Jewish people, gave his nation the strength to surmount difficulties, real or imagined. Trusting that the Almighty wants the best for everyone, we can rise to the temporary challenges for they are ultimately for the good.
As the Jewish people emerge from Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, ready to make the transition from the deep introspection of those holidays to the outward joy shown on the following one, Sukkot, may their communication with G-d have strengthened them spiritually and allowed their prayers to be fulfilled.