| Second Thoughts |

Profane: More Than Cursing

It is precisely in such times — when words are cheap — that  it is good to remember that words are sacred


Many of us remember paying for long-distance phone calls by the minute. A three-minute long-distance call could cost five dollars — at a time when a dollar had some real value. Calls between Israel and the US were prohibitive. In such a climate, we were very sparing with our words.

This has all changed. Today, long-distance and intercontinental calls are as inexpensive as local ones. Many seminary girls and yeshivah bochurim speak to their American parents several times a week. As the dollar has become devalued, so has talk.

In such a climate — especially when we stand at the threshold of a new year — it is instructive to note the crucial role of speech in the creation of the world. In the beginning, all was dark, void, and without form. And then we hear for the first time the voice of G-d: “Vayomer, and G-d said, Let there be light.” Note that the text could have simply said: “and G-d created light,” but instead it precedes this with “G-d said.”  This word “vayomer” is repeated at least ten times in the creation narrative, suggesting clearly that speech, words, and language are the essential elements in creation. What tool did G-d use to create the world? He used speech; without it, the world would have remained in chaos and darkness, tohu va’vohu.

This is underscored by the translation of Targum Onkelos of 2:7, “and G-d made Adam into a nefesh chayah [literally, a living being].” Onkelos renders the Hebrew nefesh chayah into the Aramaic, ruach memalela, a “speaking creature.” Thus, speech is a sacred gift from Above; it is this gift that distinguishes man from the beasts.

The power of speech was not lost on the generation of the Tower of Babel. They reasoned that if the single voice of G-d could create the world, how much more so can we — with our voices unified a thousand times over —  become even more powerful than G-d and become masters of the universe. “So they said… let us build a tower” to challenge G-d (11:4). And so G-d, aware of their plan to abuse the powers of speech, foiled their designs by dispersing them and thus removing from them the creative and unifying power of language. Instead of fusion, they reaped confusion.

This somewhat clarifies the cryptic verses in Bereishis 11: “and the whole earth was of one language and one purpose…” This led them to attempt to build the tower to challenge G-d’s dominion, which in turn resulted in their dispersion and the confusion of languages (babel) in v. 8: “and G-d dispersed them over the face of the earth…”(Cf. Sanhedrin 109a, and Midrash Rabbah 37:6.)

Words continue to play crucial roles throughout the Torah. To cite just a few: Yaakov’s words to his father Yitzchak are so different from the words of his twin brother Eisav that the aged father suspects something; Yosef’s words about his brothers create hostility, but later his soothing words in the dungeon are instrumental in his becoming leader of Egypt. Still later, in assuaging the fears of his brothers, Moshe hears the voice of G-d from the Burning Bush, but resists the call to lead Israel because he is “heavy of speech…” Moshe strikes the rock instead of speaking to it; Miriam speaks ill of Moshe; the spies speak ill and disparage the Holy Land. And in the ultimate lesson in the perversion of speech, Bilaam’s donkey speaks words — implicitly warning us that if a donkey can talk like a man, then if we are not careful, a man can end up talking like a donkey.

No wonder that the Torah specifically warns us (Bamidbar 3:2) lo yachel devaro — literally, “Do not profane words.” Words, language and speech are holy. Do not misuse them, just as you would not misuse holy vessels from the Beis Hamikdash. Motza sefasecha tishmor,” be careful what emanates from your mouth: lashon hara, rechilus, slander, gossip, nivul peh, unclean language, untruths — are all profanations of the sanctity of speech, the very opposite of holiness.

This reminds us that tzniyus, modesty, applies not only to the lengths of sleeves and hems, but also to the content of the words and language that emanate from our mouths.

The phone companies no longer charge by the minute, but it is precisely in such times — when words are cheap — that  it is good to remember that words are sacred. And who knows? It might well be that in another realm, we will be charged not by how long we speak but by what we speak.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 926)

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