Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

3 Cheshvan 5763 - October 9, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Shema Yisrael Torah Network

Opinion & Comment
The Ruler's Scepter

by Yochonon Dovid

The human body is made up of two sets of muscular systems, one of which is the involuntary system which activates various organs in our body without our conscious intervention or even knowledge. No person can arrest his cardiac activity, nor can he control the muscular workings of his stomach and intestines. The function of these muscles is not controlled by our will or decision.

The second system includes voluntary muscles which do function according to our conscious will. We are fully responsible for the motion and actions of our hands and feet, for example, for they will only move if we will them to do so. Through a microscopic lens, one can differentiate between the two kinds of muscles.

We sometimes come across a person suffering from some pathological phenomenon where some voluntary muscle in the body suddenly turns independent; it will act without its "host" actually commanding it to do so, and perhaps even against his express will. We are filled with pity at the sight of a shoulder twitching involuntarily, or a face being contorted by a violent tic. The nerves which activate those particular muscles have escaped the control of the person and no longer fully obey his will and command. We all pray that we not be subject to such a pitiful phenomenon where we lose control of the voluntary muscles in our body.

If someone were to ask us if the tongue is operated by voluntary muscles or involuntary muscles, we would laugh. Everyone knows that speech is a meditated act which we control. But a second look might make us waver at such a definitive statement. We are all familiar with such excuses as, "It was a slip of the tongue," or, "I was upset and I didn't think before I reacted verbally." Or the trite, diplomatic evasion: "My words were taken out of context." These phrases after-the-act certainly indicate a failure in the voluntary, premeditated control over one's speech.

The speech of such a lax person has fallen to the level of the involuntary muscles of the viscera, the digestive system. The tongue and what it expletes are automatic functions without any backing of thinking or cognitive decision. Some will regard this independent or spontaneous speech lightly, justifying it that it only occurs rarely. We can readily realize the severity of the fault, through the help of the following question:

Who is prepared to buy -- at a discount price and in installments -- an excellent brand-name car with only one fault: once in the course of every thousand kilometers, without any forewarning, the steering wheel loses control over the wheels for only a few seconds. Who could guarantee that these few moments will not occur just as the driver is making a hairpin turn above a gaping abyss, or when a massive cement mixer is hurtling towards him on the opposite lane?

We hear of public figures getting entangled in the wake of something they said, which raises hackles within and without. They attempt to wriggle themselves out of the trap which they laid with their own mouths, through all kinds of flimsy excuses and weak justifications. After the fact, every person clearly sees the foolishness in saying that problematic sentence and the lack of any need to have used whatever adjective they did which caused all the to-do.

Had the person thought a moment before speaking, he would have spared himself a great deal of trouble and far-reaching implications. But he didn't stop to think, and thus lost control over what issued from his mouth.

It is interesting that such people, upon whose words many hang, are so-called leaders, role models, public figures and so on. It is strange that people who have no control over themselves and the proper functioning of their limbs and organs, presume to lead thousands of others. The ultimate chossid, that is, a refined and exalted person, says the Kuzari, is one who controls his emotional, spiritual and physical powers. Only such a self-disciplined person is worthy of governing others and their leaders.

We do not hear of gedolei Yisroel who allowed improper words to "slip their tongue." Or the need for them to apologize or excuse themselves for having uttered something out of confusion or thoughtlessness. Their control over speech is complete and full, from a clear and sound mind which is governed by halochoh. There are things which must be said and things which cannot be said, and never do they mix the twain. Their speech is not automatic; rather, every syllable that leaves their lips is voluntary and thoroughly thought out, including far-reaching implications and ramifications. We are filled with envy and think: How is it possible to acquire such absolute control?

The answer is provided by the Ramban in his famous Letter. He teaches us a cardinal rule in this area: "It is vital (to think about) speech before you let it leave your mouth!"

He said this in connection to prayer, but immediately continued, "And thus shall you do all the days of your life in every utterance -- and you will not sin."

Many think about what they said only after they say it, but the main stress in this rule of the Ramban is upon the word "before" -- before you let it issue from your mouth. This is the secret of gedolei Yisroel who rule over their speech. Thinking after speaking requires apologies, justifications and excuses. But thinking before speaking prevents forbidden speech from being said and averts the need to make amends through apologies and asking forgiveness.

Apologies and asking forgiveness is the plane between man and his fellow man. But there also exists an inner plane between man and himself. If I have said something that I later realize should not have been said, I am left with a foul taste in my mouth. Even more -- I feel like a failure. My self-worth has fallen in my own eyes even if no one makes any remark to that effect, for in my own eyes I know the truth. This is a bad feeling that does not wane with the passing of time; its impression is engraved upon my memory.

On the other hand, if I have been lucky enough and in a split second I reminded myself of the paragraph in Chofetz Chaim about the particular prohibition of saying what lies on the tip of my tongue and I forced my lips shut and maintained silence then, after the moment has passed, I am suffused with a marvelous feeling of value, of self control. This is the joy of a healthy person who is not subject to involuntary movements beyond his control, of one who feels the power he controls when his mind is holding the leash on his tongue and the organs of speech. He revels in a feeling of well-being, health of spirit and body. It is the marvelous sensation of the tzaddik and chossid who dominate their bodies and its corresponding powers.

The street of today adulates spontaneity, instant reaction, automatic reflex. This is what highlights and dazzles in sports, public debates and media interviews. But it is the polar opposite to the chossid of the Kuzari and the guiding lines of the Ramban. Our elite figures have no interest in gleaning the accolades of the mindless masses but in acquiring perfection in G-dly service where their guiding light is the halochoh which teaches them what not to say and how to say what must be said. Their speech is not fast and fluent but measured and patient, allowing for correlation between mind and tongue. Their words and their silences are intertwined, each worth many a sela.

The day will come and all will acknowledge that in such a great man's "knapsack" is stashed away a true ruler's scepter. Fortunate is the one who is wise enough to choose such a leader as his personal role model and to challenge himself to emulate him.

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