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Words have power. What you say can break or can build relationships, families, friendships, jobs, marriages, lives...

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“Guard My Tongue from Evil”

Translated and Adapted by Braha Bender

 

There are several events that the Torah commands us to remember. One of them was the sin of Miriam when she spoke ill of her brother, Moshe. Miriam came down with tzaraas, a supernatural skin disease caused by engaging in destructive speech. Within a short time, Miriam did teshuva (a process of return to her spiritual potential) and got well. Why is it a special mitzvah to remember such a thing?

The Almighty goes out of His way to have us remember this event is in order to emphasize how seriously He takes human conversation. Words are not “just words”. The western world and human consciousness in general goad us into a false sense of security. The claim is that it doesn’t really matter what you say. It’s just breath on the wind. But the Torah is making a special point, commanding us never to forget for a moment: that’s not true! Words have power. What you say can break or can build relationships, families, friendships, jobs, marriages, lives.

So important is this that Jews pray every day to use the power of words for good and not for evil. The Shemoneh Esreh prayer central to the entire Jewish prayer service ends in a request to, “Guard my tongue from evil.”

Prior to Shemoneh Esreh, every Jew composed his or her own prayers daily. However, as spiritual sensitivities lessened throughout human history, Jewry began to lose the ability to compose prayers meeting all of their spiritual needs. In order to fill the widening gap, the Great Assembly gathered to compose a prayer that would help every Jew focus on the various issues crucial to his or her spiritual development and wellbeing. Every word written in the Shemoneh Esreh is a wealth of spiritual insight and empowerment.

That’s why all the prayers up until the very end are phrased in plural in order to help the individual Jew identify with the entire Jewish People. However, Shemoneh Esreh’s concluding requests are phrased in singular. As our precious moments connecting with our Creator draw to a close, we open up to share our most personal yearnings and wishes.

“My G-d, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking deceitfully,” we whisper. The heart of all of our prayers is that we become human beings who do good, not evil, with the unique and formidable power of human language.

The request continues, “To those who curse me, let my spirit be silent and let my spirit be like dust to everyone.” We ask the Almighty to help us overcome the natural human tendencies to arrogance and revenge. Let them curse me – I will not respond in kind. Let them walk all over me – I don’t need their respect to feel a sense of my own self-worth since the Almighty respects me and that is enough.

When a person is dependent upon other people to provide him with a sense of his own inherent worth, he is certain to lash out when that honour is denied. However, when a person knows that his worth comes from the Almighty regardless of how other people treat him, he is able to refrain from revenge and destructive speech. He is able to be like G-d, meeting other peoples’ needs even when they treat him like something as expendable and meaningless as dust.

That’s why this prayer, phrased in the singular, is placed at the end of the plural Shemoneh Esreh. Only by being “like the dust of the earth” can a person truly love other people unconditionally. Only then do is prayers for the entirety of the Jewish People gain meaning. Our prayers, and our lives, depend upon the ability to guard our speech to build and not destroy people, others or ourselves.

King David asks, “Which man desires life, who loves days of seeing good?” He answers, “Guard your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit” (Psalms 34:13-14).

But don’t make the rooky mistake – the way to avoid destructive speech is not just by staying quiet, but by using the power of speech to talk about Torah. Torah elevates human beings to an intimate relationship with the Almighty, a life of moral worth and purpose that colours every person and event in a meaningful, positive light. The sins of destructive speech, usually founded on so much negativity, criticism, and bickering, naturally fail to appear in such a landscape. That’s where the Torah is inviting us to live – in a world of friendship, dignity, and love.


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