12 Feb Parashat Tesaveh- The Power of Speech
Parashat Tesaveh is the only Parasha in the Torah after the account of Moshe’s birth in which his name does not appear. In every single Parasha since Parashat Shemot (in which we read of Moshe’s birth), his name is mentioned, as we might expect. Parashat Tesaveh marks the glaring exception.
The Rabbis teach that Moshe’s name was omitted from this Parasha because of an incident about which we read in next week’s Parasha, Parashat Ki-Tisa. In response to the sin of the golden calf, G-d decided to eradicate the Jewish people and create a new nation from Moshe’s offspring. Moshe, however, like a captain who refuses to abandon his sinking ship, interceded on the people’s behalf. He insisted that if G-d destroys Beneh Yisrael, Moshe must be eradicated along with them. Moshe would not agree to be kept alive if Beneh Yisrael were killed, and he said, “Forgive, please, their sin, and if not, erase me from Your book which You have written” (Shemot 32:32). G-d accepted Moshe’s plea, rescinded His decree and forgave Beneh Yisrael.
Nevertheless, despite G-d’s forgiving Beneh Yisrael, Moshe’s demand of “erase me from Your book” had to be fulfilled, at least to some degree. A statement made even on condition – especially when made by a Sadik – has a certain power and will be fulfilled, in one way or another. Hence, even though Moshe hinged this demand on a condition that was not met – as G-d indeed granted Beneh Yisrael forgiveness – it had to be fulfilled. And for this reason his name was eliminated from a Parasha in the Torah.
Our Rabbis inferred from this omission of Moshe’s name the immense power wielded by human speech. In Jewish thought, words are not cheap. They carry a lot of weight and are very significant. And thus, alongside the obvious prohibition against cursing or speaking with hostility to other people, we must also exercise extreme care regarding the way we speak even about ourselves. Some people express frustration or disappointment with remarks such as, “I could die,” or “I could kill myself.” These words must never be spoken, because even if they are said in jest, as an exaggeration, or on condition, they have power and could be fulfilled, Heaven forbid. As our Sages teach, “Al Tiftah Peh La’Satan” – “Do not open your mouth to the Satan.” Satan has enough ideas of ways to harm us; we should not be giving up more.
There are several striking examples of this concept in the Humash. Yaakob told Laban that the person who stole his idols “shall not live” (Bereshit 31:32), and as a result, Rahel, who had taken the idols, died young. Yehuda declared to Yaakob that he would renounce his share in the next world if he did not bring Binyamin home safely from Egypt. Although he succeeded in bringing Binyamin back, he was nevertheless denied entry into the next world for 250 years until Moshe Rabbenu prayed on his behalf. A tongue is soft and looks innocuous, but it can be a very dangerous weapon, even against oneself.
Rav Haim Palachi, the great Rabbi of Izmir, Turkey (1788-1869), once spoke about his righteous grandmother, and described how when she became angry and felt the urge to curse someone, she would exclaim, “Ha’mavet Al Yafrid Benenu” – “Death shall not separate between us.” She accustomed herself to this exclamation so that her mention of “death” would always be made in a positive context. Negative words are so damaging that the Sefer Hasidim (Rabbenu Yehuda Ha’hasid, Germany, late 12th-early 13th century) writes that if one lives near people who curse, he must move away.
This is especially important when it comes to parenting. Unfortunately, many parents speak very harshly when they become aggravated by their children, and make comments such as “I am going to kill you,” “I am going to wring your neck,” and the like. Besides the emotional damage such comments cause to impressionable children, they are also dangerous, plain and simple. We must recognize the unique power of words and ensure to speak with care and discretion, so that our words will bring only blessing and happiness, and not, Heaven forbid, the opposite.