We Jews are a garrulous group. We just love to talk and shmooze and kibbitz. As a result of this, I guess that it’s not surprising that our Sages seemed to be fighting an uphill battle against idle conversation. We’ve begun the Pirkei Avot season, and the rabbis warn against speaking too much and describe silence as one of the great guarantors of spiritual greatness. And this week’s double reading reinforces this tendency, because our Midrashim have long concluded that the spiritual scourge of tzara’at, discussed at great and overly detailed length, strikes as a result of speaking lashon hara or pernicious gossip. Now we don’t know what this dermatological disease is, but many believe it’s a form of psoriasis. As I grow older I’m able to point to white, flaky stuff on the backs of my hands to help illustrate this phenomenon to my youthful charges. Luckily, none have asked me what I said to cause this malady.
So, it’s a bit surprising to see which verse from the book of Proverbs Rabbeinu Bechaye (d. 1340) has chosen to introduce our parsha. He always has these parsha prefaces, always quoting Proverbs, and usually it’s obvious why he chose that particular verse. However, this week is a head scratcher, and here it is: Joy to the individual whose mouth gives an appropriate answer; what could be better than a word spoken in its proper time (Proverbs 15:23). King Solomon seems to be praising the benefits of speech, perhaps, an early free-speech advocate. On one of those Bible translation websites I found the following cool rendition: What a joy it is to find just the right word for the right occasion! (Good News Translation). It’s wonderful to speak well. This seems to contradict the spirit of his father’s famous verse in the book of Psalms: Who is the person who desires life, who loves days and desires to see goodness? The one who guards the tongue from evil, and one’s lips from words of deceit (Psalms 34:13-14).
I realize we could say that we’re not comparing the same things. One team led by King David is criticizing nasty stuff that comes out of someone’s mouth; the other, led by the son, King Solomon, is praising a well-spoken thought. We can say that there is no argument, but the strong language on both sides does leave the impression that one group is emphasizing the care we must take with our talk and the other’s agenda is to promote an active search for good discussion of ideas.
Rabbeinu Bechaye himself appears to be on team two. Here’s what he offers: That when a person intends to speak words that are correct, considered and well-ordered, wisdom itself is gladdened because this one is careful to not allow words to escape the lips until the heart has considered them. He explains that the second phrase in the verse teaches us about the proper timing of speech. A joke, no matter how hilarious, is not proper in a house of mourning, as it says in Bereishit Raba: At time of joy, joy; at a time of sadness, sadness (27:27). He then explains that this concept is the source of the famous Talmudic statement: Inquire about the laws of Pesach at Pesach, the laws of Shavuot at Shavuot and the laws of Sukkot on Sukkot (Megilla 32a). If that were the entirety of Rabbeinu Bechaye’s comments, that words should be appropriate and timely, I might have concluded that there is no argument between our verse and all the other material about the dangers of speech. However, the great commentary goes on to another point that he calls al derech hamidrash, or midrashically speaking.
According to Rabbeinu Bechaye’s allegorical approach, the “person” being referred to by King Solomon is none other than God. The “appropriate response” from our verse is talking about when God said during the Creation, “Let there be light, and there was light” (Bereishit 1:3). And the “word spoken in its proper time” refers to when the Torah said, “and God saw the light that it was good.” (Bereishit Raba 3:3) That’s the midrash, but the good rabbi wants to explore what is the “proper time” vis a vis our Creator. God was, is and will be. What is a proper time for the infinite Deity? So, here Rabbeinu Bechaye makes an assumption about the intent of that midrash. The “proper time” for God means the order of Creation. All of the energy and matter were created in the first nanosecond (or whatever time frame works), the revolutionary idea in the midrash is that all of this “stuff” was placed in a perfect order or hierarchy during the first week. Therefore, humanity must be the pinnacle of Creation. After all, we came last.
The esteemed rabbi leaves unsaid a truly profound idea. Other places in his master work Rabbeinu Bechaye refer to a famous Kabbalistic idea that all Creation is a pyramid, with us at the tippy top. How are the different levels described? Well, we begin with domem, or silent (often called inanimate), then tzome’ach, or vegetative (meaning “growing things”), followed by holech or mobile (the animal kingdom) and, finally, medaber, or speakers. Our unique status is defined by our ability to speak.
I firmly think that Rabbeinu Bechaye believes that speaking must be an extremely significant attribute worth cultivating, developing and, yes, expanding. It’s sad that over time so many of our Torah giants have emphasized refraining from speech as an antidote for negative use of this amazing capacity. And sometimes that sadly might be true. There are habitual or addicted gossipers. But I believe strongly that priority should be given to well-spoken thoughts and ideas. We can’t tell plants to stop growing, why should we suggest humans stop speaking? Human speech is a great gift. Let’s use it in an appropriate and timely manner. It brings us one step closer to God. Maybe chap a shmooze with God.
By Rabbi David Walk
Rabbi David Walk is a teacher at the Bi-Cultural Day school as well as Congregation Agudath Sholom’s Education Director. He is a tireless teacher and educator. For over 30 years he has taught students from third grade and up and conducted many classes for teens and adults. Prior to joining CAS, he served as director and teacher at Yeshivot Hamivtar in Efrat, Israel.