Matot-Masei: The holiness of speech

When a man vows a vow unto the Lord... he shall not break his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth! (Numbers 30, 3).

July 4, 2013 20:07
2 minute read.
Torah reading

Torah reading 370. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem /The Jerusalem Post)

The greatest of the Torah commentators, Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, who lived in France approximately 900 years ago), explained the words “shall not break his word” in the following manner: “Shall not break his word – like not make his word profane, not make his words common.”

We are used to expecting people to stand by their words. You said it – keep to it! But what is the reason that the words a person utters obligate him? There are those who might phrase this question more bluntly: “I said it; so what?” With the short sentence above, the Torah teaches us a completely different attitude from what it accepted. The Torah makes speech holy. A person who does not stand by his word is profaning holy speech.

This is not obvious. Holiness? Profanity? What is the connection between speech and holiness/commonness? We know there are holy days, like the holy Shabbat whose sacredness can be preserved or, heaven forbid, desecrated.

But why would a word I said contain holiness, and if I do not uphold my word I am committing an act of “profanity” which desecrates my word? Yes! Speech is holy, and we understand its essence and holiness when we look at the significance of speech and what it provides to us human beings.

People are uniquely above animals in that they have the quality which allows for creation of mutual relationships and maintenance of those relationships over time. Actually, this trait is the highest expression of our moral character. Loyalty, relationships, responsibility, equality – all these are values which can exist only when there is a connection between two people, a mutual connection characterized by one acknowledging the value of the other.

And this connection is created and maintained by speech! Our ability to express our relationship with another in words is what allows us to create obligating connections, valid connections which contain loyalty, and real acknowledgement of another person outside oneself.

A person who speaks words which do not obligate him is a man who is not capable of forming social connections.

This kind of person takes speech and “profanes” it. He makes the speech devoid of significance. He diminishes the trait that allows him to relate to another and turns it into a tool that serves him alone.

A person who “profanes” his speech is a person who looks upon another as an entity that does not exist by its own right. He does not give his word to another because he does not value the other. This kind of person is immoral since the fundamental basis of morality is the recognition of the value of another, and when a person speaks to someone and does not keep his word, he is passing on words that have no validity, and as such is declaring that the other person does not merit human treatment.

This is why the Torah attributes holiness to speech and defines not standing by one’s words as profanity; because to say things and not keep to them is a desecration of the moral values upon which humanity is based.

The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.

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