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Keep My Tongue from Speaking Evil — Letter from the Rabbi

Do you ever feel uncomfortable about things you have said? I think sometimes we all do. If we wanted to avoid ever saying things we later regret, we’d probably have to keep silent all the time! Our Sages recognized how common it is for us to speak “evil” – to say things our better self wishes we hadn’t said. That is why they placed at the end of the silent Amidah, the set of blessings which is central to Jewish prayer, a personal meditation that starts: My God, help me keep my tongue from speaking evil. If only God, or some watchful personal angel sitting on our shoulder, could check our words before we utter them!

These thoughts came to me in connection with a very odd story in one of the Torah readings this month. The Israelites are on their way to the Promised Land, and are passing close to the territory of a local king. This king, Balak, is frightened by the strength of the Israelites and fears they may attack his country. So he commissions a seer, or prophet, from a far-off land, to come and curse the Israelite people. That way, the king thinks, they will be weakened and easy to defeat. Curses were seen in those days as powerful weapons to put down another person or even a whole people.

Now the prophet, whose name is Balaam, would be quite happy to do as the king is asking him, especially as he will be well paid for his trouble. It seems he has no great love for the Israelites, and no moral problem with cursing them. His problem is God! During their time in the wilderness since leaving Egypt, the Children of Israel have often behaved badly, and have grumbled a great deal, but God is not going to let them be harmed either by curses or by foreign armies.

So God warns Balaam repeatedly that he must speak only the words that God puts in his mouth. Whatever Balaam’s bad intentions may be, God makes sure his tongue speaks only good words. Three times the king orders Balaam to curse the Israelites, and three times Balaam utters words of blessing. In speeches that infuriate King Balak, the prophet Balaam praises the Children of Israel, recognizes that God is with them, and prophesies that they will have success in their endeavors.

The idea of cursing may seem very old-fashioned, but words do matter: Our tongues have great power to deeply affect the world of others. We can raise others up, as Balaam did; or we can bring them low, as Balaam would have done if God had let him. We see ourselves as good, loving people, and most of the time it is true. We may not realize it when our words, or our tone of voice, or the expression on our face, cause hurt to another. Even silence can hurt, for instance when I withhold appreciation for something good that has been done for me. I know for myself that I can be impatient and my words may come out more harshly than I would want. If only we could find the right words and the right tone at the moment we need them! It doesn’t mean there is no proper place for anger or for criticism. Of course there is. But we can still do our best, in the way we talk, to make sure the other person is not made to feel small.

Just think how good it feels when someone speaks kindly to you, or even just smiles at you. Doesn’t it add to your sense of wellbeing; or if you are feeling bad, doesn’t it brighten your life a little? And if we have said something silly, how much better it is to be responded to with understanding rather than with contempt!

Many of us know the words lashon hara – saying bad things about someone else behind his or her back. Most people love gossiping, which often means saying negative things about others. Even if those people never hear of it, their good name is being stolen from them, making them the subject of ridicule or contempt.

The tongue we have in our mouth is an instrument that can bring great good or great harm. May God help us to make all our words, and the way we speak them, a source of blessing to others, and never a source of curse!

Rabbi Anthony Elman Rabbi Anthony Elman is the Skirball Director of Spiritual Life at the Jewish Home and also serves as Rabbi of the Home's Grancell Village campus. His professional background is multifaceted, encompassing the fields of law, social work, and psychotherapy. Rabbi Elman has been with the Home since his ordination and graduation from the Academy for Jewish Religion-California in May 2007

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