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Watch Your Mouth

Rabbi Maury Grebenau

Our parsha opens with the laws of vows, including an admonition not to break them. The
Torah (Bamidbar 30:3) uses the phrase ‘lo yachel’ to tell us to keep our word. Elsewhere the
Torah (Devarim 23:22-24) has the same prohibition but phrases it differently. There the Torah
tells us to ‘guard our lips’ when we make an oath. Rashi and the Ibn Ezra both explain the
language of ‘lo yachel’ as coming from the word ‘chulin’ meaning profane. The Torah here is
telling us not to make our speech profane. We have the power to make our mouths holy devices
and we must not forgo this opportunity

Shlomo HaMelech in his striking prose tells us that ‘death and life are in the hands of the
tongue’ (Mishlei 18:21). Speech is a powerful tool for either good or evil and it should be seen as
such. The Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 33:1) tells us a memorable story of Tevi, the brilliant
servant of R’ Shimon ben Gamliel. Rav Shimon twice sends Tevi to the marketplace. Once to get
the tastiest delicacy and once to get the most disagreeable meal he could find. Both times Tevi
responds by retrieving a cow’s tongue. When Rav Shimon asks about his choice, Tevi explains
that the tongue is both the best and the worst. When we use our tongues for spiritual pursuits, to
help others feel good and to brighten their lives there is nothing better than our speech. When we
use this same gift to hurt others and to speak angrily to coworkers and friends then there is no
greater evil. Misusing our speech is a grave misuse of a powerful tool. This is part of the Torah’s
message when it commands us to ‘guard our lips.’

But in our parsha the Torah goes much further. It isn’t enough for us to avoid using our
speech in destructive ways such as Lashon Harah (gossip) and Onaas Devarim (hurtful speech).
Our speech must be used as a holy instrument. When our speech is empty and meaningless then
we violate the idea behind ‘lo yachel.’ The Rambam (Pirkei Avos 1:17) breaks up all speech into
five distinct categories. The third in his list is ‘maus’, speech which is disliked by G-d. The
Rambam tells us that it is proper to totally avoid this type of speech. Surprisingly, ‘maus’ speech
is not hurtful speech or even boorish conversation; it is speech which has no practical purpose.
The Rambam gives examples such as speaking about what the king does in the privacy of his
palace.

The entertainment industry has decided that it is integral to our existence to know what
outfit each movie star wore to each awards ceremony. They have convinced Americans that we
should all discuss which stranger had to go home from which reality show each morning before
we begin our jobs. There are internet sites and television shows which tell us about the houses of
people we will never meet and vacations of our politicians. The Rambam tells us that aside from
wasting our time, these conversations waste another valuable commodity: our speech. If we see
our speech as being powerful enough to lift a friend’s mood, to communicate with Hashem and
to educate our children then how can we waste it on trivialities? This is the message of ‘lo
yachel’. It is insufficient to simply make sure we don’t use our speech to tear down and hurt; we
must use our speech in the most glorious way we can. When we make our speech mundane we
deprive our speech of its true nature of holiness.