by Rabbi David J. Cooper
Every High Holydays we sing Mi Ha-Ish (from Psalm 34:13-14), a simple prayer that asks nothing but is, rather, advice on living well. Some early rabbis considered it the distilled essence of the Torah:
Who is one who desires life, savoring each day, and seeking goodness? So guard your tongue from doing wrong, and your lips from speaking deceit. Avoid doing wrong, but do good. Demand peace and pursue it.
I find it compelling that the psalmist’s prime advice centers on how we use our words. You’d think other actions might receive a higher priority. But perhaps it makes sense because Jewish civilization is one built on words and our biblical mythos even posits the idea that the universe itself was built on such words as “Let there be light.” And then, the most frequent sentence in the Torah mentions speech twice: “YHVH spoke to Moses and said.”
It’s not that the Torah is all words and no action. Rather words are action, often even more determinative than what we do with our hands.
Kehilla’s spiritual leaders considered several themes for this year’s High Holydays, and the more we discussed them, the more we returned to the issue of speech.
How we use our words frames our interrelationships: how we relate to each other, to God, to the universe. It frames how cohesive we are as a community of interrelating individuals. Rabbi Dev has emphasized that how we use our words is a major component of our spiritual path.
In community, the conscious—or unconscious—use of our words is one of the central issues in the Jewish ethical tradition, mussar. So much so that one of the leading teachers of mussar almost entirely focused on the issue of how we use speech. This was Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan (1839-1933) who took the nom de plume Chofetz Chaim, “one who desires life” inspired by the psalm mentioned above.
The Chofetz Chaim explored issues of right speech, “lashon tov,” and its opposite, “lashon ha-ra.” He emphasizes that lashon ha-ra cannot be reduced to lying or false statements. After all, Psalm 34:13 specifies refraining not only from deceit but also from using one’s tongue to do wrong—which implies that sometimes damage is caused even when speaking the truth.
So what is right speech and what is harmful speech is complicated and thus grist for Kehilla to delve into during the holidays when we ask ourselves whether we are living according to the values that we profess and when we resolve to do better.
In my experience this is already a congregation that uses speech better than many. I see us using our ears to actually listen to each other rather than to determine how to argue back. I hear us speaking not to assert our power, but rather to be of assistance. Sure we fall short of this at times, but I am impressed by how well and how often we succeed.
Nevertheless, it behooves us to become even more conscious of how we communicate, and also to learn more of the rich lessons about speech that the Jewish tradition provides to us. And by doing this together we can perhaps as a community better share a vocabulary about right speech and the power of words.
That verse from Psalm 34 pops up in a different form in the last segment of the Amida prayer. There it is within a prayer of supplication: “My God, guard my tongue from doing wrong and my lips from speaking deceit.” Well, I’m not sure it’s God’s responsibility to do this guard duty, but I do agree that each of us could use as much help as we can get.