This week’s parasha, Matot, opens with the laws pertaining to oaths. Why is it important that one keep an oath? If one pledges an oath to help someone and in the end goes back on his word, this is obviously wrong since someone has been hurt. On the other hand, it’s difficult to understand why one is held liable for oaths that have no affect on anyone but himself. In Judaism one is taught to be careful with his mouth–not only what he puts into it, but what comes out of it as well. The abuse of speech, in the form of Lashon Hara (gossip), foul language, and failure to keep one’s word,–even to ones’s self–is a grave transgression. What is so special about speech that requires such a high standard?
Speech brings us back to the beginning of creation. “And G-d said let there be light”. Our rabbis teach us in the Ethics of our Fathers: “With ten sayings G-d created the world.” The first act of creation was an act of speech. Obviously, G-d could have created the world in a different way. Since he created the world through speech there must be an important lesson to be learned from it. Shlomo Hamelech, in Proverbs (18, verse 21), teaches us that “Death and life are in the hands of the tongue.” With these few words Shlomo summed it all up: speech is the key to life and death.
According to our sacred traditions, there are five spiritual worlds. The highest is called Adam Hakadmon, Primordial Man–referred to as AK. Since the entire universe was created for the sake of man, the very first act of creation was the formation of Primordial Man. The world of AK is the seed that contains within it the blueprint of the entire universe. It is so elevated that it is almost in complete oneness with the Divine light that flows into it. It is so lofty that we really cannot comprehend it at all. What we do know is that it is the root of all the other worlds and serves as an interface between the Infinite Creator and the finite universe. In kabalistic literature we’re taught that the source of vessels, the receptors which allow us to receive the divine energy, is the mouth of AK (one of the anthropomorphisms used to describe its spiritual fabric). Anything that cannot be contained in a vessel has no meaning for the receiver. If a person has only one empty bottle and chances upon a body of delicious spring water, he can only take back with him what the bottle can hold. The Divine light can mean nothing to us if we don’t have the vessels to contain it.
The mouth is the first vessel of creation; it functions as the vehicle of G-d’s ccommunication with us. If not for this communication, we would be unaware of G-d’s existence. The breath of life, which is taken in through the mouth, originates from the same spiritual source: AK. The sage Onkeles translates Hashem’s breathing of life into man as instilling in him the power of speech and separating him from the beasts. We begin to see why, in Judaism, speech is regarded as sacrosanct.
In Isaiah 33, verse 21 it says, “This nation I created to declare my praise.” We celebrate the birth of the Jewish nation on Pesach, which means in Hebrew ” the mouth that speaks.” The oral law, transmitted by speech along with the written law, from G-d to Moshe, from Moshe to Joshua, etc., represents G-d’s special instructions to us, via His personal communication. This is why the Ten Commandments in Hebrew are called the Ten Dibrot, from the Hebrew word dibur meaning to speak. Incidentally, Sefer Ba Midbar, which we complete this week, shares the same root, daber. Two major speech events occur in this sefer. In addition to the speaking of the ten Dibrot, the speech of Life, there is the abuse of speech in the form of the report of the spies, which results in the death of the Dor HaMidbar.
One of the laws regarding prayer is that we must utter the words with our lips. It is not enough to read the words silently; we are required to actually say them. Unlike the organs for seeing, hearing, and smelling, which take in stimuli from the outside, the mouth has both the ability to take in and to give out. Through speech one has the ability to interact with others. (In a positive or negative way.) By praying aloud we engage actively and positively with Hashem.
Distinct from the faculties of hearing, seeing, and smelling, the faculty of speech develops as we mature. Children begin to experiment with the different words they hear, sometimes testing our reaction. As parents and educators, we must exercise care when speaking to and in the presence of our children and students. The sanctity of oaths teaches us how important it is to be mindful of the things we say aloud, even if no one is around to hear us. Speech is G-d’s special gift to man; we must make the most of it and take care not to abuse it.
Rabbi Moshe Goldsmith Itamar