Rabbi Yosil Rosenzweig
PARSHAT CHUKAT/BALAKBamidbar (Numbers) 19:1-25:9
Haftorah - Micah 5:6-6:8
I recently met the father of an old friend at a breakfast meeting. He held a theory that as human beings, our thoughts and intentions have more value than does speech. I respectfully disagreed with my friends father, citing a number of Torah and Rabbinic sources. We left the meeting agreeing to disagree.
A number of times we have discussed the concept of "Tzelem Elokim" (being created in the image of Hashem). One of our fundamental Jewish beliefs is that Hashem is not corporeal, He is not a physical entity. What then does Tzelem - image, represent?
We have answered, that our concept of "image" indicates, the power of speech. The ability to communicate beyond mere grunts and sounds, which may have some informative effect, distinguishes us from all other creatures. We can communicate abstract ideas, we can put these ideas into words and pass them on to others who would have never conceived of, or even comprehended these ideas, without our unique communicative abilities.
We have also stated, that the power of speech can have positive and negative effects. Lashon Hara, is what caused the B'nai Yisrael to spend forty years in the desert. Our tradition teaches that to verbally abuse someone in public is tantamount to murder. Likewise, words also can have such a healing and calming effect that is at times comparable to the creation of whole universes.
Both of our Parshiot this week deal in some way with speech. In the former, Moshe hits the rock, instead of "speaking" to the rock and is not allowed to enter Eretz Yisrael (Bamidbar 20:7-12). In the latter, Bilam, is brought to Moab to curse Am Yisrael and instead blesses the nation. Even Bilam's mule gets a few words in.
When Hashem created the world, He did not meditate on creation, He created
with the power of speech:
Balak, the king of Moab and Midian was frightened of Am Yisrael. He heard of their miraculous Exodus and the demolition of Egypt's military might, forty years earlier. He saw what this group of Israelites, with no military training recently did to the mighty warrior kings, Sichon and Og (Bamidbar 21:23-35). Now the B'nai Yisrael were approaching his territory, and knowing that conventional warfare would not succeed, he requested the services of the mercenary prophet Bilam. "For I know, that those your bless are blessed and those you curse will be accursed" (ibid 22:6).
When Bilam endeavored to curse Israel, Hashem did not allow it. Instead Bilam was forced to bless the Jewish nation, a number of times. Each time he blessed them, he used the two names of the Jewish people, Ya'akov and Yisrael.
"Come curse Ya'akov for me, come bring anger upon Yisrael."
What is the difference between Ya'akov and Yisrael?
When the name Ya'akov is used, it implies a passive behavior. Ya'akov was
a follower, a dweller of tents. He was pushed and prodded into situations
by his mother, his father and his brother. Yisrael, on the other hand, was
aggressive, he was the G-d wrestler. He took an active role in his own
When Bilam tried to curse Am Yisrael, Hashem did not allow that to happen. The power of the word causes changes in reality. Even the blessings had to be worded in such a way, that either Ya'akov or Yisrael would be able to derive full benefit from the blessings, hence the double terminology.
To show you exactly how powerful speech can be, we must look at the first of this Shabbat's two Parshiyot. The people of Edom were descendants of Esau, Ya'akov's evil brother. They shared a common history. When Esau last departed Ya'akov's company, he returned to his inherited homeland, Edom, while Jacob eventually descended to Egypt.
When the B'nai Yisrael approached the region of the Edomites, Moshe sent emissaries to ask their permission to pass through their land. Moshe also sent them a message. "...you know all the hardships that have befallen us. Our forefathers descended to Egypt and we dwelled in Egypt for many years and the Egyptians did evil to us and our forefathers. And we cried out to Hashem, and He heard our voices and He sent an emissary who took us out of Egypt..." (Bamidbar 20:14-16).
During the 210 year Egyptian exile, the Israelites were separated from their culture. For part of that time they were enslaved in Egypt and suffered horrible humiliation and torment. However, as long as Am Yisrael remained silent, they did not participate in their own redemption.
But at a certain point, the pressure, the pain and suffering became unbearable and they cried out. "And we cried out to Hashem, and He heard our voices and He sent an emissary who took us out of Egypt." The power of speech manifested itself into redemption.
Our tradition teaches us that when the B'nai Yisrael cried out, Moshe was born, he was the emissary that is referred to. His birth began a series of events that eventually led to the Exodus from Egypt. It was through Bilam's astrological interpretation about a newly born redeemer that led to the decree of drowning all male babies (Shemot [Exodus] 1:10). It was through Yocheved and Miriam's (Moshe's mother and sister) attempt to save Moshe, that he was sent upon the waters of the Nile. He was saved by Batya, the Princess of Egypt and was raised in the house of the very Pharaoh, who endeavored to bring about his death (ibid 2:2-10). Eighty years later, Moshe led the B'nai Yisrael out of Egypt.
As long as the children of Jacob remained passive and internalized their misery, their slavery continued. As soon as they translated those feelings into words and wrestled with their own destiny, then the redemption of the B'nai Yisrael was only a matter of time.
The evilness of Edom and their continued hatred of Jacob did not allow them to allow their own cousins to pass through their land. But Moshe's message to Edom was clear, Hashem responds to the cries of Israel. As cousins, they had the right of refusal, but war and suffering was not an option. With the power of our voices we have the ability bless or to curse, to create or to destroy, to bring about our redemption or increase our own misery.
Only a few short years ago we saw just where negative speech can lead. An atmosphere of dissension was created that escalated and led to the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin. Regardless of what our positions were, we were all accomplices of that crime. So many of us felt that the other side was intransigent, was leading us down the path of destruction. We spoke against the opposition of our views with hatred and scorn. And after that murderous act occurred, we all asked, "How could such a thing happen?"
At this time in our Jewish calendar, we are about to enter the three weeks (July 1 - 22), a period of time when we are reminded that our Temples were destroyed because of Sinat Chinam - wanton hatred. We must rectify that situation by implementing Ahavat Chinam - by an aggressive display of love towards our fellow man.
How noble would it be to only speak well of people. To never say a disparaging remark about another, even if it's true. Use your G-d given gift of gab, sparingly. For some, it means acting like Ya'akov, for others, we must act like Yisrael. But act we must.
Rabbi Yosil Rosenzweig
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