A Lioness By Any Other Name?
By Braha Bender
The king was sick. Ministers and physicians, serfs and attendants, none knew how to cure the king’s terrible illness. Finally, the wisest man in the kingdom was summoned, and a single answer was on his lips: in order to get well, the king had to drink the milk of a lioness.
Heroes and knights, strongmen and tyrants, all were summoned to the palace to present their skills and pedigree towards the all-important task of journeying to bring the king a flask of lioness milk. After much display and debate, the king finally settled on a single man, an individual so skillful, so unsurpassed in might, and so shrewd in his tactics that even a lioness could not outwit him.
The hero journeyed forth into the wilderness in search of his prey. Long hours under the hot sun challenged his legs, but they labored onward. Tough branches and thick brush challenged his arms, but they pushed ahead. Bright daylight glared into his eyes, but he gazed forward. After many days and many nights, the hero finally reached his destination. There, laying before him a scarce field away, was a lioness with cubs greedily nursing at her belly.
It took all his cunning, strength, and skill to reach and milk the lioness, but eventually the deed was done. The hero started back towards the palace immediately, but shortly thereafter grew weary with his efforts and lay down to rest. A strange dream came to him as he was sleeping.
In his dream, the various limbs of his body were debating loudly. His legs cried, “It is thanks to us that this body attained the milk of a lioness! Without our strength this stupendous feat could never have been done!”
His arms retorted, “Your strength? It was our strength that cut through the many branches and fallen trees that lay in our path. Besides, it was our hands that milked the beast! We are certainly the most important limb of the body.”
The hero’s eyes, ears, and every other body part took a turn at the claim that they were the crucial element when suddenly the tongue stood up and quietly said, “Wait and see which body part matters the most…”
As he woke up and continued on his way the hero was confused. So flustered was he by the strange dream that when he walked into the king’s throne-room to present the prize he had journeyed for, he mistakenly declared, “Behold, I have brought your majesty the milk of a…DOG!”
“Off with his head!,” cried the ailing king.
That night, as the hero wallowed in the sordid depths of the palace dungeon, the dream returned but this time with a different tenor.
“You see who is the most important?,” said the tongue triumphantly. The other limbs and body parts wept in fear of the suffering that awaited them all despite their great efforts. The tongue had quite obviously won the debate. His power had trumped them.
“But don’t worry,” continued the tongue, “I will not leave us in this situation. Wait and see what else I can do.”
The next morning, after begging to see the king one last time, the hero burst into the throne room crying, “Your majesty, please! Your health is of the utmost importance and what I brought was nothing but the lioness milk that will cure you! In my country we call the lioness a dog. Forgive me for dishonoring you! Exhaustion from the journey must have led me to a slip of the tongue…”
The king, overjoyed to discover that the cure he needed was finally at hand, called off the death sentence and commanded riches to be heaped upon the hero’s head. All ended happily.
Parashas Shlach describes the evil words spoken by the ten spies about the Land of Canaan. So convincing was their false negative report that the Jewish People cried all night, considering even to return to slavery in Egypt rather than enter the Promised Land.
The consequences for the spies’ treason were severe:
“Like the number of days that you spied out the Land, forty days, a day for a year, shall you bear your iniquities – forty years – and you shall comprehend straying from Me.” (Numbers-Bamidbar 14:34)
Words are puffs of air shaped by the tongue, cut by the teeth, slipping off the lips as though they mean nothing at all. The spies’ report lasted a scant hour. Even the cry and uproar it caused in the camp lasted only a single night. Why apply the consequences, and such severe consequences, to the forty days that the spies journeyed through Israel?
The forty years for forty days teach us that the words of the tongue are not invisible butterflies silently fluttering off into nothing. The words of the spies’ tongues were the final blow, the last straw, the crowning moment of a forty-day process culminating in something rotten.
Our words reflect our inner essence – the way we look at things, the emotions we cultivate, the thoughts we think. Speech is the most powerful of all means of self-expression because it expresses the entire self – every perception, every choice that has shaped the personality – in sharper relief than anything else.
Moreover, verbal expression is the turning point, the gyre on which a personality revolves. The culmination of who a person has chosen to become is cemented the moment they say so. The hero’s journey became meaningless the moment he called the lioness a dog. How was the king to know what had really taken place? How is anyone to know what is really taking place inside you? Until you give it words, how are you to know either?
“Life and death is in the hands of the tongue,” says the Talmud: your life. Your relationships. Your perspectives. Choose well.