In our Besorah reading this week Yeshua is asked what is the greatest commandment. This was a common topic of debate in his day with various teachers giving different answers. The question wasn’t really about the greatest commandment specifically, but more about how can you summarize the totality of Torah succinctly. Rabbi Akiva, a very prominent rabbi in the first century, agreed with Yeshua quoting Leviticus 19.18 “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”. Shimon Ben Azzai, a contemporary of Akiva, says that the basis of the whole Torah is that God made humanity in His own image. Meaning that we should treat one another with love and respect because we are all children of God. And of course we have the famous story where Hillel was asked to teach the Torah while standing on one foot and he too reflects Yeshua’s teaching (though he lived before him) by saying “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary; go and learn.”
I have quoted Dr. Michael Wyschogrod many times over the years where he says that a tzaddik, a righteous person, is one who does no harm. This is what I would like to specifically focus on today, particularly in our speech. Our words can heal or harm. Our words can give life or cause death.
All of us have been harmed by people’s speech. We have been the brunt of gossip, harsh criticism, angry words, or jealous invictives. Likewise, we have harmed others in the same way. It happens daily in thousands of little ways. Such speech is not loving our neighbor and violates this central tenet of both Judaism and Christianity. Ironically, it is the most prevalent, I believe, and the least addressed in our communities. It tears down people’s sense of worth and damages relationships. Our words can be so damaging. In the book The Wisdom of Sirach (28:17) it says “The blow of a whip raises a welt, but a blow of the tongue crushes the bones.” In Proverbs it says “The soothing tongue is a tree of life, but a perverse tongue crushes the spirit.”
Yeshua said “On the Day of Judgment people will have to give account for every careless word they have spoken.” I don’t know about you, but I am not looking forward to that day.
So what is the remedy? I think that it is two fold. First, we must develop a practice of restraint. We need to pause before we respond to someone, allowing a few seconds to reflect on how our words might harm or help the other. Yaakov, Yeshua’s brother, likens the tongue to a wild horse that must be bridled. He says “Anyone who thinks he is religiously observant but does not bridle his tongue is deceiving himself, and his observance counts for nothing.”
I recently watched the Tom Hanks movie about Mister Rogers called “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it. I didn’t grow up with him on TV, so I didn’t know much about him other than his reputation. I was so impressed with Fred Rogers. In the movie he tells a reporter that we have to be careful what we say and how we say it. The reporter asked him how he handles his negative feelings. He said that you could go do some exercise, pound out some dough, or bang on a piano, anything to avoid letting it become words of harm to another person. He practiced a lifetime of restraint, a lifetime of striving to do no harm, a lifetime of fulfilling the mitzvah to love our neighbor.
He won’t like me saying this, but my personal model for this has been Rabbi Mark. Like Mr. Rogers, he always seeks to pay attention to what he says and how he says it. Like all of us, he isn’t perfect at it, but he lives a life of restraint in speech. In fact he wrote a book about it years ago that was recently republished with Vine of David. It’s called “Taming the Tongue” and I highly recommend it.
The reason that most of us are not very good at restraint is because it is extremely hard. It also requires us to build a focus on the well being of others, which is totally opposite of our contemporary culture which is focused on what is good for me, my rights, and my needs.
But there is another reason why it is so difficult and why we do harm with our words. This is my second point. We fail to love others, often unintentionally, because of our own insecurities and ingrained ways of thinking. We think that we are reacting to something ugly or distressing in the other person, but often we are reacting to subconscious triggers in ourselves. I worked with a woman years ago who reacted very poorly to any kind of even mild correction. I was puzzled by this until some years later she revealed to me that her mother was very critical of her, she could never do anything right. I realized that any time someone corrected her, they were poking that sore spot in her psyche and it caused her to react strongly. We all have these battle wounds of life and when they get poked in some way, we lash out, oblivious to the fact that we are doing it. I know for me one of them is when people seem to attack my sense of belonging. This is a wound in my life that comes from several factors and negative life experiences. I have the tendency to react negatively and do harm to others when it is poked. Oftentimes we react negatively to what we perceive is an affront, but sometimes it isn’t at all. We are overreacting because of our own woundedness.
Restraint is a tool to not only help us from doing harm, but also to notice the reason why we are reacting harshly. It gives us space to notice what is welling up within us. We can then reflect on what wounds are causing us to want to harm others. This is exceedingly hard because it requires us to look at our own ugliness instead of blaming it on other people’s ugliness. We have to love others enough to be willing to gaze at our own shortcomings.
Elijah fled to Mount Horeb in a fit of despair, fear, and depression. The rabbis condemn Elijah for his lack of faith and view his ascension into heaven in the fiery chariot not as a reward but as punishment. They point out that when confronted by God, the text says that he hid his face. Elijah was not willing to look at himself and face the fact that his desolation was caused by his own failings.
The Baal Shem Tov said “Even when you see something ugly or unbecoming in another person… it is for your good that you have seen this since you have some aspect of this same ugliness in you as well and this will move your heart to teshuvah [repentance/change].”
May we live a life of restraint.
May we seek to bridle our tongues as a way to fulfill the mitzvah of loving others.
May we not hide our faces but be willing to look deeply at our own ugliness to uncover the reasons behind our bad behavior.
And thereby we will become tzaddiks and true followers of Messiah Yeshua in doing no harm.