Every Breath You Take
Life is so expensive, but we took some comfort for a long time in thinking that at least the air we breathe is free. And then came along the Coronavirus and slapped a price on that too making even our “Listerined” breathes potentially lethal. But, you see my friends, breathing was never really a freebie to do with as we please; it comes with great responsibility and accountability. For certain, man cannot count his every breath, like he does his assets, to display his appreciation of them. But how one uses one’s speech, which those breaths afford us, says a lot. There are no words without the breath that carries them forth. So, I must ask: What have we been talking about? Have we made talk cheap? The First Amendment guarantees “the freedom of speech”— but have we abused our freedoms?
The power of speech is so mighty, that long before the First Amendment, God created the world with it: “And G-d said, ‘Let there be light,” etc. Then G-d breathed life into our mouths and gave man alone the ability to speak. Yet with that very same vessel we spew hate, mischief, curses, gossip and falsehoods. The very tools He used to build the world, we use to destroy it. The Talmud states that every word which issues from our mouths, whether good, evil, by mistake, or on purpose, is written in a book. They never disappear just as energy never disappears as teaches The First Law of Thermodynamics. And when we are in times of danger those words prosecute us in the Heavenly court. And we pay the price. It’s expensive. So please tell me, with the stakes so high, from all the role models in the Torah, from King David to Queen Esther, why we would want to emulate the snake whose venomous tongue brought down mankind?
In this week’s Torah readings we learn how talking slander about people can you make you ugly. The punishment for it is a skin disease. One that also involved quarantines. Interestingly, the duty falls to the Kohanim, the priestly spiritual leaders, to evaluate the skin diseases of the people, not doctors. Why you ask? Because its cause is spiritual, not medical. “Plagues only affect a person on account of the evil speech which comes out of his mouth” (Talmud). We must look at our punishment and see how it fits the crime. Covid-19—It’s breathtaking! Perhaps the mandatory masks are reminders to watch our mouths in more ways than one.
Watching our words is not just a nice recommendation from our local rabbis. It’s a Torah commandment. “You shall not go around as a gossip monger amidst your people (Leviticus 19:16). We must use our breaths as if our life depended on them, because it does. If we don’t believe that words have power, then why bother praying on Yom Kippur or anytime for that matter? And if we do believe, then certainly we wouldn’t use our finest crystal classes to gather a urine sample; so why use the same mouth we use to pray and bless our loved ones for despicable, undignified and sinful speech?
So my dear friends, what are you talking about? I know when someone calls me and asks me, “So have you heard the latest?” I know we are not off to a healthy start. If all our friendships revolve around gossiping about others, perhaps it’s time to question who our friends are. If today they yap about others be sure that tomorrow they will talk about us. When’s the last time you walked away from a conversation smarter than when you started, more inspired and healthily motivated? Do your friends make you better people?
I know it’s not easy to stop and that being a yenta ironically is as contagious as the plagues it causes. But we are better than that. How can we not be? G-d made us! Remember the simple advice we’ve all been told, “Think before you speak.” Save your breath, guard your words, watch your mouth and remember most things are better left unsaid. Shabbat Shalom!