Mattot: To Speak or Not to Speak

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

“In ten utterances did G-d create the world” (Avot 5:1). It is thus not surprising that many see man’s ability to speak as the clearest manifestation of the Divine image with which we were created.

Moshe Rabbeinu argued that his poor speaking skills made him unworthy to be the one to redeem the Jewish people from Egypt; it was only when G-d appointed Aaron as his spokesman that Moshe finally accepted his mission. Interestingly, never again do we hear any reference to any speech defect Moshe may have had. Moshe transformed his weakness into one of great strength. One could argue that the Torah is, in essence, Moshe speaking to the Jewish people. While often, Moshe is repeating what G-d told him, at times the Torah is comprised of Moshe’s words, where the Torah does not specifically mention that they were told to him by G-d.

Sefer Devarim is composed of a series of speeches by Moshe as he prepared the nation for entry into the land of Israel. Its opening phrase, “These are the words that Moshe spoke to all Israel”, imply that Moshe was speaking of his own volition. This is an issue raised by the Abarbanel in his introduction to Devarim, as he discusses the relationship of Moshe’s independent speech and the notion that the Torah was dictated by G-d unto Moshe.

With the advent of mass communication, the power of the spoken word has been magnified. How often does a career end because of a misspoken word that, unbeknownst to the speaker, was recorded and subsequently broadcast across the planet? While the issue may be magnified today, it is by no means a new problem. As we were taught as children, it was Moshe’s inappropriate speech in bringing forth water from the rock that led to his being denied the opportunity to lead his people into the land of Israel.

The wisdom to know when to speak and when to remain silent eludes many. Aaron, who was initially appointed to be Moshe’s spokesperson, is a man of few words, the Torah recording his words only in rare circumstances. Words are often inappropriate, a notion highlighted by the fact that—when struck by the tragic loss of two of his sons—he remains silent, vayidom Aaron.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 27b) defines enemies as people who, given the opportunity to do so, do not speak to each other for three days.

Perhaps one of the less talked-about features of Moshe’s greatness was his willingness to talk to all. “Moshe sent forth to summon Datan and Aviram” (Bamidbar 15:12). Those who challenged him were to be spoken to, to try and diffuse the situation.

This ability served Moshe well in dealing with a crisis potentially no less threatening than that of the spies. After forty long years, the Jewish people were finally ready to enter the land. Yet the tribes of Reuven and Gad had no desire to do so. Moshe skilfully negotiated an agreement that perhaps neither “side” was thrilled with, but which met the basic needs of both. While it is the story of Moshe’s negotiations with the leaders of Reuven and Gad that forms the end of the parsha, the beginning of the parsha deals with the laws of vows and oaths, highlighting the seriousness of our words.

Tragically, we live in a time when all too often, instead of talking with each other, we talk about each other. This is true both on a personal and institutional level, where ideology often creates an iron wall between well-meaning Jews. It is only by sitting down and talking to each other that we can hope to move forward.

As we enter the period of the nine days, we are most cognizant of the paralysis and tragedy that follows when we are unable to know when to speak and when not to. The story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, which encapsulates what went so wrong, could have turned out very differently if words had been used wisely.

Despite the public humiliation of Bar Kamtza taking place in full view of the leading rabbis of the day, these rabbis remained silent, giving the impression that this did not bother them (Gittin 56a). And when a rabbi finally did speak, he did so to ensure that absolutely no compromises in the law be considered, even when dealing with foreign governments. This view, the Talmud declares, led to the destruction of the Temple and our subsequent exile.

While oratorical skills can be of much value, of more enduring significance is what we say and what we don’t say. Let us ensure that there be no enemies amongst us, and that the lines of communication remain open between all Jews, despite the wide range of views we may hold. This is the path to redemption.