The Value of Speech
Adapted by Braha Bender
Kohanim (priests) serving in the Beis HaMikdash (Temple) wore special clothing rich in symbolism. Every detail of their clothes had meaning, from the way they were produced, to the way they were donned, to the way they appeared. Though the priestly garments were exquisitely beautiful, their greatest beauty was not in their outward appearance, but in their inner meaning.
One of the garments worn by the kohen gadol (high priest) was a noble, sky-blue coat. Lining the hem of the coat were small golden bells to atone for sins of destructive speech. We still struggle with these sins: gossiping, putting other people down, voicing angry criticism, and other ways of speaking that break down our own and others’ relationships.
Destructive speech primarily involves the misuse of the voice. When the kohen gadol wore the coat, his every step voiced the bells. But the power of this garment went beyond symbolism.
Torah asserts that damage done by spiritual mistakes, sins, may be healed by a process called teshuva. Doing teshuva involves first stopping the destructive behaviour, making amends to any other damaged parties, and regretting the mistake. The second, most important part of teshuva is verbally confessing and apologizing for the mistake to the Almighty, and committing never to behave in the same way again. After a person has done teshuva, complete atonement sometimes requires additional steps.
When the kohen gadol approached the Sanctuary wearing the coat with bells at times commanded by the Almighty, those who had done teshuva for destructive speech would be atoned. It was as though they had become new people, people who had never made those destructive speech choices at all. Why did a musical garment atone for them?
After all, if we were asked what type of garment should atone for sins of destructive speech, we would probably respond that such a garment should be absolutely silent. We would describe a fabric so soft and silky as to emit not even the slightest hush when worn in movement. The silent fabric, we would assert, would teach the need to keep quiet instead of thoughtlessly mouthing off.
Instead, the little golden bells on the hem of the kohen gadol’s coat taught a very different lesson. Torah asserts that our primary spiritual mission is to build loving relationships with each other and with the Almighty. To build a relationship, you have to talk. The Almighty doesn’t want us to be silent. Rather, He wants us to sound our voices with caring and emotional intelligence – constructive instead of destructive speech. Although silence is a valuable tool, it is not the ultimate goal.
The hero of these issues in recent Jewish history was Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, better known by the name of one of his most famous books, the Chofetz Chaim. Rabbi Kagan had dedicated his life to inculcating an awareness of the severity sins of destructive speech carried for speakers, listeners, and the entire Jewish People. One would imagine that he was a very quiet man.
However, those who knew him say that, to the contrary, Rabbi Kagan was actually quite talkative. Conversations about Jewish law and the greatness of God filled his lips. He also did not hesitate to voice his opinion about current issues and events, whether they effected the nation at large or the private lives of individuals. Many benefitted from frequenting his presence for advice and guidance.
This was the spirit in which the sages explained the Mishna saying that, “A protective fence for wisdom is silence” (Pirkei Avos Chapter 3, Mishna 17). What is the “wisdom” protected by silence? The sages explain that the wisdom being protected is the wisdom of speech, speech that includes no sliding into forbidden destructive exchanges.
“Its sound shall be heard when he enters the Sanctuary before Hashem and when he leaves...” (Exodus 28:35) A powerful sense of holiness moved the Jewish People as the kohen gadol approached the Sanctuary. He stepped into the Presence of the Almighty representing all of them, including their power of speech.
But that powerful impression of holiness was supposed to stay with the people long after the kohen gadol left the sanctuary. Our speech was to remain constructive, sensitive, and caring - holy - at all times, even when the inspiration of the Beis HaMikdash was long behind us.