Rabbi Shay Piron was the former Minister of Education in Israel. He published this essay in Hebrew on the 27th of September 2020. I had the privilege to correspond with him and get his permission to translate and disseminate his words. Following Rabbi Piron’s teaching I added a reference to Parashat BeHar that connects his message to a specific Mitzvah, one of the 613 that we are commanded to observe. Parashat BeHar has much more to it. Read my article about the sanctity of time and the connection to economics.
We have desecrated the sanctity of words; turning them into gun bullets.
Yom Kippur evening opens with our plea for forgiveness from God for the words we have spread throughout thin air this past year. Those words have the ability to connect or just generate alienation. The sanctity of our words became contaminated and the value of their meaning degraded. The tone of conversation everywhere – in the social media, in the Government corridors, in shops and businesses, as well as in our own living rooms – is terrible; the decision and action to change it is in our own hands.
The renown Israeli author David Grossman wrote in one of his books: “Why aren’t people required to have a license to use certain words, just as one needs a license to carry a concealed weapon?” Words have turned into gun bullets. They injure, and sometimes even kill. Some of the worst sins of the human race were driven by words, yet some of them are magical and inspiring. An old Chinese proverb says: “open your eyes quickly, and your mouth very slowly”.
In the evening of Yom Kippur, most of the Israelis will participate in the Kol Nidrei Prayer, that opens the Holy day. The purpose of this prayer is one: to ask God to forgive us for the words, the promises, the vows and the excommunications that we have spread into the space of our community. Our words define us and clarify to others who we are; they tell our story.
Words have a crucial and central role in our lives: on one hand we belittle them, while on the other hand they hurt us.
There is verbal air pollution across all boundaries. It is a rough, rude, violent, arrogant and cynical verbiage. The tone of conversation grows thistles rather than the blossom of flowers. Words fashion the space of interaction between persons. Words create connection and words create alienation. We have contaminated the sanctity of the word, we given up its might, and we’ve degraded its meaning.
Yom Kippur enables us to erase all our false promises and vows, as well as inviting us to decide that the tone of our conversation will change. It is not just “them” the leaders; nor just “out there” in the Parliament (called in Israel the Knesset); it is also in the social networks and the media. This terrible kind of conversation is also present within oneself, in one’s living room and around the family’s dining table. It meets me on the road, in the bank and the local supermarket.
Tikkun (Repair) Protocol
Yet, the choice of words is ours: a decision that I and you are making. It is WE, and not THEY, that start to talk differently as of now. We are trying not to fowl our tongue and not to curse. Not to raise our voice. Let us avoid cataloging people into categories and excommunicate. We can do that by following these five steps:
First Step: Awareness
The first step in this Tikkun (repair) process depends on the recognition of the situation, and changing our own awareness. Whatever the mouth utters, the heart gets to believe. Let us try to start understanding the scope of the damage and the devastating effect of the quality and form of our conversation. I must stop “throwing words”. I need to understand that “I didn’t mean it” and “don’t take me seriously” are expressions that I should take out of my vocabulary.
Second Step: Remove Certain Words from Vocabulary
The second step in this Tikkun protocol involves a tough decision: there are words that I will never again say. Every week during the next several months, I will decide on a single word that I will never say again. A word that has no room in my Nefesh, soul. A word that will never exit my mouth again.
Third Step: Build Substitutes to Words Removed
The third step is building the substitute. I am building a stock of good words and training myself to use those words. As the Israeli poem Ya-akov Gil-ad proclaimed: “Every now and then it is hard, but most of the times, a good word does me only good, and immediately. Only one good word, maybe two – not more than that.”
Forth Step: Silence
The fourth step, probably the most difficult of them all, is to appreciate the power of silence, of being quiet. Speech is a humane action, and silence is Divine, because silence has strength, restraint and control. Speech is lavish and wasteful, silence is precise. Moreover, speech takes its power and becomes meaningful only when it is accented by the opposite background of the “no-noise” of silence. Slowly, very slowly, we learn that it is possible to communicate, to converse, through silence.
Fifth Step: Use Words in Proportion to the Situation
The fifth step is putting everything in proportion. We must stop using pompous, “big” words when dealing with small things. Sometimes a small, insignificant thing triggers us and creates unproportioned response, pulling our tongue to use bombastic words. Why, what has happened that justifies the use of those kind of words?
Each word has a value. “My brother” is a word that should be used with my brother and him only. Not everyone I meet in the street is my brother. “My essence of life” is a deep and profound expression that is worth whispering in the ears of my loved one. All conjugations of the word LOVE are sacred. Unique. I am not desecrating them anymore.
“Life and death are in the hand of the tongue” is not just a biblical verse. It is a fact. The fire of the harsh words already burns the fringes of our society. If we will not extinguish this fire, the house will burn down. This time, not from the bullets of weapons, but from the gunpowder of words.
Connecting Rabbi Piron’s teaching to Parashat BeHar
In my humble opinion, there is one verse, Leviticus 25:17, that warns us from the very same use of words that Rabbi Piron is talking about:
Do not wrong one another, revere (be at awe, fear) your God; for I Adonai am your God.
וְלֹ֤א תוֹנוּ֙ אִ֣ישׁ אֶת־עֲמִית֔וֹ וְיָרֵ֖אתָ מֵֽאֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ כִּ֛י אֲנִ֥י יְהֹוָ֖ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃
The verb in Hebrew – TONU – is translated to ‘do not wrong’. Additional meanings that stem from the Hebrew are deceit, cheat and verbal mistreatment. The Talmud gives a few examples of such a verbal mistreatment.
(Mishnah Bava Metzia 4:10): “One may not say to a seller: For how much are you selling this item, if one does not wish to purchase it. By doing so, one thereby upsets the seller when the deal fails to materialize.”
“If one is a penitent, another may not say to him: Remember your earlier deeds. If one is the child of converts (Ger – stranger that lives within one’s community), another may not say to him: Remember the deeds of your ancestors, as it is stated: “And a Ger (convert, resident, stranger) shall you neither mistreat, nor shall you oppress him” (Exodus 22:20).
(Talmud, Bava Metzia 58b:10): “Likewise, if donkey drivers are asking to purchase grain from someone, and he has none, he may not say to them: Go to so-and-so, as he sells grain, if he knows about him that he never sold grain at all. He thereby causes the donkey drivers and the would-be seller anguish.”
“Verbal mistreatment is not typically obvious, and it is difficult to ascertain the intent of the offender, as the matter is given to the heart of each individual, as only that individual knows the intention one has at that time. With regard to any matter given to the heart, it is stated: ‘And you shall revere with fear and awe your God’ (Leviticus 25:17), as God is privy to the intent of the heart.”
As we can see from the Talmudic teachings, this decree applies to all, regardless of gender, religion or any other discriminator. I suggest adding the need to examine the innermost intent of our words to the second step in Rabbi Piron’s Tikkun Protocol. If the words we are about to say have even the slightest intent of deception, mistreatment, we should immediately apply to 4th step, exercising the power of silence.