Bruce Springsteen used to complain about “57 channels and nothing on”. Today, with live streaming, Netflix, Hulu, Prime, Disney Plus and the like, there is never a shortage of entertainment. Get the scoop or the latest dirt on the “news”, see the best roasts on late night TV, watch the systematic destruction of individuals on reality shows – well, that’s entertainment! And, if you haven’t had enough, you can read all about it on the latest social media feeds. We are a society that thrives on put downs, set downs and zingers. We enjoy it on the screen, we enjoy it in real life and, truth be told, many of us have felt the little thrill when delivering the perfect little jab that hits the mark just so. We are trained, from a young age, to subscribe to the “sticks and stones” philosophy, where “names can never hurt me”. And we do it instinctively, most of us giving it little thought. Yet words can be the most hurtful of all. Thinking back to our younger days, how many of us clearly recall the one thing that person, teacher, or friend said that to this day you are still smarting from? Words do hurt. In fact, they can be very damaging, whether delivered to another or directed to ourselves. Though we spend much time, effort and energy in perfecting our outer selves, our hair, our clothes, losing that extra weight, working out a little…..how many of us work on controlling our speech? On being mindful of the words we use and the things we say?
Parashat Tezaveh calls our attention to the importance of guarding our tongues and bringing awareness to our speech. For a good part of the parashah, the vestments of the Kohen Gadol are itemized in great detail, literally from head to toe. As everything mentioned in the Torah is there to teach us a lesson, the lesson from the robe seems almost heavy handed. The repeated reference to the word “Pi” meaning “mouth” permeates the section.
The neckline of the robe is described as: “safa yihyeh lefif saviv – it’s opening shall have a border all around” (Shemot 28:32) and a little further, “pi rosho betocho -his mouth should stay within him” (Shemot 28:33). The Yid HaKadosh of P’shischa explains that this is a call for us to guard our tongues and to avoid Lashon Hara, defamatory speech. Chazal elucidate from here that man should concern himself with his own affairs and not those of his neighbor. G-d gave us a tongue with walls, our lips, to guard it.
“And the Choshen shall not be loosened from the Ephod” (Shemot 28:28). The Degel Machaneh Ephraim, grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, further suggests that the Choshen or breastplate that Aaron wore on his chest alludes to the heart, while the ephod, a garment worn over the robe, is symbolic of the mouth. We are being cautioned that our speech should match what is in our hearts so as to avoid sheker or falsehood. It is not merely a matter of lying, which is forbidden outright. This is when one’s words are not aligned with one’s values, beliefs, or feelings.
Finally, one last interesting feature to the Kohen Gadol’s robe is the row of bells tinkling at the hem as he walked: “Its sound shall be heard when he enters the sanctuary” (Shemot 28:35). Between each of the bells were pomegranates. Yet another imagery for the open mouth (bell) and the tongue (the knocker of the bell) making noise as the Kohen walks. The pomegranates then represent the closed mouth which remains silent. Furthermore, there is also a balance, for every bell, two pomegranates, for every pomegranate, two bells-there is a time to speak and a time for silence. The Chatam Sofer comments on the sound of the bells in the stillness of the Sanctuary stating that while humility has its place, there is a time that speaking up and being heard matters and is even necessary. For the sanctity of the nation and the lives of its members, people must be loud and clear.
We learn in massechet Peah that Lashon Hara is considered to be one of the most severe transgressions, more severe than either idolatry or even murder. There is, however, a balance between knowing when to speak and knowing when to remain silent. The power of speech need not only be destructive. The right words can build, encourage, empower and inspire, they can be a call to action or a call for peace, they can heal and they can mend. When our words match our hearts and our hearts are filled with empathy, the power of our words is limitless. But sometimes, silence is golden.
Dr. Laura Segall
Head of School