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Parashat Matot-Masei 5773 — 07/03/2013

Parashat Matot-Masei 5773 — 07/03/2013

He shall not profane his word, all that comes out of his mouth he shall do. (30:3)

[If] he does not profane his word, all that comes out of his mouth He [Gd] shall do. (30:3)

He will not profane His word; all that comes out of His Mouth He will do. (30:3)

And Gd said ‘Let there be light!’ and there was light (Ber. 1:3)

Since our Parashah begins with the laws of vows and oaths, wherein an individual can create a new reality merely by expressing himself verbally, it is an auspicious time to consider the nature and the role of speech in creation.  Clearly, when we speak of speech, especially Gd’s speech, we are not talking about ordinary vibrations in the atmosphere.  Whenever we speak of Gd we can speak only by analogy, however the fact that we choose one analogy over another may convey significant information or insight.  Why does our tradition hold that Gd created the world through speech (cf. Pirke Avot 5:1)?

Speech and hearing differ from other senses in some interesting ways.  For one, speech is linear.  Although the Midrash tells us that Gd spoke all 10 Commandments at once, it immediately states “which is impossible for a person to do.”  It is also impossible for a person to understand – if you have more than one child and they are bringing a dispute to you, you understand this principle perfectly!  Consequently Moshe Rabbeinu had to teach us Torah, and of course he did so through the medium of (human) speech – one item at a time.  Similarly our written language is a linear sequence of symbols that map to the linear sequence of sounds that make up spoken language.  This linearity is in contrast to the sense of sight, for example, where we can, in a glance, take in many objects and their interrelationships.  Linearity implies sequence, and in this case we can think of either temporal or logical sequence – the Talmudic term mashma’ = “implies” has as its root shema’ = listen.

Another feature of hearing and speaking is that they are the faculties that we use to create relationships with one another.  Our bodies reflect light and we can therefore be seen by others, but this reflection is passive on our part.  In the case of hearing one another, we consciously create speech, with the express purpose of communication.  Speech involves a speaker of course, but it also involves a listener and it forges a link between them.  This is obvious when we are talking about two human beings; that is the concrete part of our analogy which we understand from our common experience.  But it also applies – in both directions – in the relationship between Gd and His creatures.  When we pray, we are speaking to Gd.  When we study Torah, Gd is speaking to us.  In both cases, ideally, a relationship between the Creator and His creation is created, or deepened.

Interestingly, we can also consider the possibility of Gd’s speaking to Himself.  A clear hint of this is given in the first few verses of Bereishit, where Gd says “Let there be light!”  To whom is He commanding that there be light?!  Clearly nobody, since there was nobody else to command at that point.  Instead, perhaps we can describe the situation like this.  Gd is pure Being, Existence without any boundaries.  Yet Gd is also pure Consciousness.  We think of Gd as all-knowing, and knowing is a function of being conscious.  When we think of our own consciousness, it is only in the context of being conscious of something else, something outside of ourselves.  That is because we are finite; we are bounded and therefore we have an “inside” and an “outside.”  Gd, on the other hand, is infinite; to the extent that terms like “inside” or “outside” are relevant, Gd is all “inside.”  In some way, when Gd speaks, He is assuming the roles of both speaker/knower/subject and listener/known/object, setting up a relationship with Himself – perhaps we could describe it as a “virtual” relationship.  All of creation is the inner dynamics of this virtual relationship of Gd within Himself.

We can see the three levels of speech and communication in the three translations of the opening verse of our portion given above.  The pshat (plain meaning) of the verse is that we should keep our word – whatever we promise to do, we have obligated ourselves to do it.  This kind of behavior is vital for any kind of human relationship to be fruitful – the relationship must be based on trust.  On a deeper level, the verse has been translated to mean that if we are scrupulous about our speech, it becomes more powerful, as Gd helps us accomplish what we want to accomplish.  If we keep our mouth pure, then when we use it for prayer or Torah study, we will not be polluting the atmosphere of holiness that surrounds those activities with impurities that our incorrect speech have produced.  This purity allows us to attune our will with Gd’s Will; since nothing can interfere with Gd’s Will, we also experience success.

Finally, the third translation relates totally to Gd.  It is not a command – rather it is a statement of reality.  Gd is the ultimate reality – whatever He expresses by His “speech” is Truth, merely by virtue of being Gd’s speech.  On our level Gd’s speech is the mechanism by which pure Being manifests itself into beings, including ourselves.  On Gd’s level, nothing ever manifests; Gd’s communication is purely internal, unmanifest, virtual – communication with Himself.

Torah tells us that we are created in Gd’s image.  Perhaps the most important aspect of this identification of mortal man and infinite, eternal Gd, is in the area of speech.  We are commanded to “walk in Gd’s ways.”  Again, perhaps the most important aspect of this commandment is in the area of speech.  Let us resolve to think first before opening our mouths, and train ourselves to use this precious gift from Gd to enhance life in all its aspects.


Pirke Avot, Chapter 2

Mishnah 15

Rabbi Eliezer says:

Let your colleagues honor be as dear to you as your own,

And do not be easily angered,

And repent one day before your death.

One of the great dangers of anger is that it leads to crude and intemperate speech.  When one is enraged, it is impossible to think straight or to see straight (even physically, let alone metaphysically).  The Sages compare anger to idol worship, because the angry person is totally out of control of himself, and therefore easy for outside forces to control.  Perhaps this is why demagogues and dictators have for millennia used war fever to get people angry at others – this way they are easy to control, and their anger will be deflected away from those who are really oppressing them.  What is the solution?  Repentance – return to Gd by going deep within ourselves to the source of peace inside.  When shall we do this?  It appears that Rabbi Eliezer is saying we can put it off until our deathbed.  But his students asked him – does anyone know the day of his death?  Therefore, said R. Eliezer, let him repent and return to Gd today, lest he die tomorrow, and thus all his life will be spent in repentance.