Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8 )
Libraries are usually quiet places to allow for contemplation and concentration. Yet, if you walk into a Torah study hall, you may be surprised at the decibel level and the noise. Why is it that Jews study out loud? Parshat Ki Tavo offers an insight that solves this puzzle.
What truly distinguishes us from the animal kingdom? Many argue that the distinctive quality of the human being is the power of speech and communication. This week's Parsha offers a potent lesson into just how powerful an effect speech has on leading to changes in behavior.
The opening passage of Parshat Ki Tavo describes the commandment for a farmer in Israel to bring his first fruits to the Temple and say, "I declare today before God that I have come to the land that God swore to our forefathers to give us" (Devarim 26:3). The farmer then continues to recite a special formulation thanking God for His goodness. We understand the special formulation and offering of thanks but why must the farmer preface with stating clearly exactly why he is there? Rashi explains that the purpose of this declaration is to show that the farmer is not unappreciative for the land of Israel. But isn't the farmer's very coming display his gratitude? Why must he actually say it?
We derive from here an important lesson for Jewish living. Speech is a much more forceful and explosive force than we usually consider it. Expressing gratitude through speech is very different than merely feeling or thinking it. This is because although what we think about shapes who we are to a certain extent, what we say forms our identities much more. The concept of vows, and the consequences for breaking them displays this.
Vows are discussed in Bamidbar 30:3:
"If a man takes a vow to God or swears an oath to prohibit a prohibition on himself, he shall not PROFANE his word, he shall keep all words that have come out of his mouth."
The language employed here for the prohibition is not of the usual kind. The Torah could have said "lo yaavor" - do not violate your word; instead it uses "lo yachel" - do not profane. There is clearly a message conveyed with the more dramatic choice of "do not profane" your words, making them unholy. In addition, the second half of the statement also stresses speech more than is necessary when it states, "keeping words that have come out of the mouth" and not simply "keep your promises." Why?
The Torah uses the language of "do not profane" your words. Don't cheapen them because a word is a reality. The problem with breaking a vow is not simply that one is being dishonest. It is much more than that. You destroy the reality you have created when you violate your vow.
Saying something out loud has a deep and profound effect upon the human personality. It is not as we think, that speech is only significant when speaking one's mind in public as opposed to in private, because a vow is as obligatory stated in private as in public. Rather, the strength of bringing thoughts from the mind into the realm of speech applies even in privacy. We may think that cursing at someone or using foul language in private is harmless. While it is preferable to cursing in public, it still does considerable damage to one's spirituality because when thoughts become speech, a more powerful transformation has been effected. Speech creates a new reality and has a strong impact upon the people who speak them.
If we have thoughts that we shouldn't have, we should dare not say them. Lusts and desires spoken achieve a force that words left unspoken do not have. The same is true for positive growth. If I think thoughts of improvement I do not attain much growth. But saying that I want to learn more, love God, pray, love my parents more, love my spouse more, is already more than just an undertaking; it is already in the physical realm to an extent and is somewhat as if I have carried out my words. And if I do have thoughts that I should not have, saying aloud that I wish I would not have them is a great benefit for removing them (although there's no reason to say that too loud).
An example of this involves Jacob. There are times when we are allowed to falsify facts and mislead for 'the sake of peace'. This is derived from God Himself who did this in order to maintain peace between Abraham and Sarah (See Rashi, Bereishit 18:13. This concept cannot be universally exercised and one should consult a halachic authority for specific questions as to its application.) The case involving Jacob is when he deceivingly diverted Isaac's blessing from Esau to himself. The Torah approves of Jacob's behavior (as does Isaac when he discovers what had occurred - see Bereishis 27:33) and considers this episode a justified event for the proper development of the Jewish people.
When Jacob walks into Isaac's room, posing as Esau, Isaac asks him, "Are you my son, Esau?" and Jacob replies, "I am Esau, your firstborn" (see Bereishis 27:18, 24). Rashi ( Bereishis 27:19) cites a Midrash stating that Jacob really was saying, "I am I, Esau is your firstborn." What is the Midrash trying to say? Are we playing games? We know that Jacob wanted Isaac to think he is Esau. So why does he say it in this way and why does it matter what his intent was when he said it? The statement itself misled Isaac anyway. Why is it significant that it could have been understood in a truthful manner with the comma in between "I' and "Esau"? Is it less of a lie this way?
A lie is a lie. This is true. But the Midrash is telling us that there is an enormous difference between a lie where the words themselves are false, and a lie where the words are true but the intention is for a lie. This Midrash is teaching us the tremendous power of words and the care that we must take when using words. This is why Jacob was concerned that at least his words could be construed as truthful.
A word that is unrefined or rough has an effect upon us and taints us. A spoken word changes us. We must carefully consider our words and not haphazardly state our opinion. We must make sure our message is properly articulated. We must be careful how we speak to others and the way we convey our thoughts.
This insight is the reason why verbal confession before God is such an integral part of repentance, which is the major theme of the month of Elul, in our preparations for the High Holidays. Rambam (Laws of Repentance 2:2 paraphrased):
"Repentance means to abandon the sin, remove it from one's heart, and resolve never to repeat it. One must also regret the action. And one must confess WITH HIS LIPS and say all of these things that he has pondered in his heart."
The phrase 'with his lips' is chosen, in similar fashion to the Torah's use of 'all that comes out of his mouth', to emphasize the enormous power that speech has in transforming a person to repent. God knows our thoughts so it is obvious that we do not verbally state anything for Him. Rather, the confession must occur for our growth's sake. Thoughts must be released through the lips in order for lasting change to take place. Without verbal confession, without speech, repentance has not been achieved and any thoughts of change will most likely dissipate.
This is also why only thinking about Torah when we study does not have the same power as verbally saying Torah out loud. (Some opinions maintain that no blessing is required when only thinking Torah. See Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 47:4, with Mishna Brura) The information won't be recalled as well either, as the Talmud states: The saying of Torah is of the essence of learning Torah (Eruvin 54a).
So, don't hold back. SPEAK your mind.