Spoken Secrets

Naaleh_logo Shiur provided courtesy of Naaleh.com

Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein

We are beginning Sefer Shemot with the parshah that depicts the onset on our first national galus, our first subjugation to an alien nation, Egypt. As the first, it will present us with paradigms of future subjugations and give us clues to the catalysts of these eras in our history and how we ourselves prepare the soil for these tragic histories.

We re not the first to wonder how this can happen to our nation. Moshe Rabbenu, born of Jewish parents but raised as a prince in the palace of Pharaoh, goes out to observe the burdens of his Jewish brothers. He too wonders why the Jewish Nation is under this severe oppression. He notices an Egyptian smiting the Hebrew. Unable to stand by at the injustice, Moshe Rabbenu kills the Egyptian and buries him in the sand. The following day, he comes across two Hebrews fighting. Again Moshe Rabbenu steps in, asking the assailant why he would strike his fellow. Unexpectedly, the reply is, "Who appointed you... a judge over us? Do you propose to murder me as you murdered the Egyptian?"

Hearing this response, Moshe Rabbenu understood two things: "אכן נודע הדבר /Now the thing is known." First, he realized that his act the previous day was no longer secret and he needed to flee. But he now also had the answer to his basic question: Why were the Jews suffering so. Rashi uses this phrase to explain medrashically that Moshe Rabbenu now understood that Bnei Yisroel were suffering so because they quarreled and carried tales, spoke loshon horo about each other.

This second, deeper interpretation of the phrase requires study. We know that Bnei Yisroel were immersed in all sorts of sins. They had descended to the 49th level of impurity. Yet it was not any of those sins that propelled them into bondage. What is it about the misuse of speech that makes it so egregious as to bring on such suffering?

Our Sages tell us that Bnei Yisroel were redeemed in the merit of four things. While maintaining their Jewish identity through keeping their Jewish names, speaking their language, and guarding their Jewish lineage all are logical, the fourth practice, that they did not reveal secrets, seems out of place. Yet this practice is included as necessary for the redemption. Why is guarding one's speech so significant?

Rabbi Avigdor Parness points out that while the two belligerents Moshe Rabbenu encountered seem to be exceptions to the general behavior of Bnei Yisroel, the Torah notes exceptions to the other merits as well. However, telling secrets differs from the other misdeeds in that it undermines the safety of all, the most obvious being one mole telling state secrets to a foreign nation. Once secrets are being shared, whether private secrets or national secrets, separateness, privacy and safety are compromised. This is hinted at, writes Rabbi Parness in the name of the Maharal, in the word אכן itself -- the א, the one, unique nation, is now being connected to the כן, the other seventy nations of the world. If they are no longer unique, they are no longer worthy of redemption.

Further, adds Rabbi Goldstein, loshon horo impacts not only the speaker-sinner, but impacts others as well, all to no purpose except to destroy people and reputations. A nation that tolerates loshon horo is not worthy of redemption. Therefore, adds Rabbi Zeichick in Ohr Chodosh, even if there are just one or two exceptions, the entire nation is held responsible. Why? Because by providing fertile ground, perhaps just by listening, they have allowed the sin to take root even if they were not personally responsible. Perhaps we have flaunted our wealth or other good fortune, creating jealousy, for example. Without meaning to, we triggered the loshon horo. [This is also the profound premise behind the ritual of eglah arufah. CKS]

On the flip side, our actions and speech also have the ability to impact others positively. Our words can inspire others, and our actions can further inspire them to emulate us. No words or actions are isolated; everything has a ripple effect. Therefor one should always speak and act with awareness.

Artscroll's Medrash Insights brings a wonderful, deep understanding from the Ktav Sofer zt”l to the dynamics at work here. When Bnei Yisroel sin against God, Hashem Himself punishes the person or the nation. However, when the sin is interpersonal, between one human being and another, Hashem gives the power to punish to other people and other nations, precipitating our subjugation and exile.

Rabbi Frand cites the Chofetz Chaim zt”l in explaining how our negative speech wields such power. Being human, we all fall and sin on occasion. The prosecuting angels are always ready to pounce and denounce us before Hashem, inviting our punishment. Hashem silences them. However, when we open the door of tale bearing on others, Hashem opens the door for the prosecuting angels to tell Him about our sins and shortcomings as well. Further, when we speak negatively, we contaminate our mouth, impeding our prayers from rising to Hashem.

It is our mouth, our ability to speak, reason, and build connections with words that separates us and raises humanity above all of creation, reminds us Rabbi Kofman zt”l in Mishchat Shemen. How one speaks determines how one acts, for speech determines a person's essence. Therefore, one must know not only when and how to speak, but also when and how to refrain from speaking.

Rabbi Kofman zt”l quotes the Chatam Sofer zt”l which uses a Korach argument to support his words. Korach asked Moshe Rabbenu Rabbenu if a room full of seforim, Torah books, still required a mezuzah on the door. Obviously, it did. Rabbi Kofman zt”l uses this as an analogy: Even if a person is full of learning and mitzvoth, he still needs to "put a guard" on the "door" of his being, on his speech. One can get a fair sense of a person's fear of Heaven just by listening to his speech. Is he willing to join others who swim in the polluted waters of speech that flood the world? If not, he should enter the תיבה, not the ark, but the letter that forms speech, he should recluse himself and avoid negative speech. Close the door behind you, for you never know where your words will travel and how much harm they can do. [This is even more important given the swift dispersion of tech speech and messaging. CKS]

When we recite the Kol Nidrei Prayer on Yom Kippur night, included in the prayer are not just vows, but all forms of negative speech, because defective speech is the source of all sin, reminds us Rabbi Schorr in Halekach Vehalebuv. [The very first sin was precipitated by the manipulative negative speech of the serpent. CKS]

Everything in existence has both an outer form and an inner function. A table can be describes as a piece of wood or as a surface for eating or other activity. Bnei Yisroel is meant to interact with the world according to its inner spirituality and reveal that spiritual essence to the world. We are not meant to remain steeped in the plain, physicality of the world. Our redemption is predicated on our tapping into that mission, writes Rabbi Schwab zt”l in Ma'archei Lev. The opposite of this inner, redemptive state is  loshon horo, negative speech that relies only on the external. Like the spies Moshe Rabbenu sent to Canaan, it sees only the apparent negative, "A land that devours its inhabitants," and spreads that vision, instead of understanding the inner purpose for Hashem creating these circumstances.

When we see the world only through this external view, Hashem wakes us up through our hardships and exiles so that we search for the hidden, internal meaning of the world.

The actions of the world represent the external, physical world, writes Rabbi Wolbe zt”l, while the Jew represents the inner, concealed world. When Bnei Yisroel were unable to live a life keeping their inner secrets, they were unworthy of redemption. Even in our everyday lives, do we do the right thing simply because we enjoy public admiration, or privately, because it is the right thing to do?

Keeping private things private is the key to maintaining one's true freedom. One's physical body can be enslaved, but not one's inner essence. When one reveals secrets, when one opens his inner world, or the world of others, to the public, he is opening himself up to manipulation and control. He is sacrificing his inner, intellectual, spiritual world to public scrutiny, thereby enslaving himself to others, explains Rabbi Weinroth in By the Light of the Maharal. This is true both on an individual level and on a national level. That is why soldiers in King David's army fell, albeit they were learned, Torah abiding men, whereas the soldiers of Achav, who were idol worshipers but did not reveal secrets remained safe in battle. Privacy emanates from the inner, secret world that is connected to godliness, and cannot be enslaved.

We are told that Esau will fall into the hands of the descendants of Rachel Imenu. In Aggadah, Rabbi Bernstein explains why this is so. While Esau represents the external, physical world, Rachel Imenu represents the inner world that can keep its secrets in silence. She never told Leah Imenu [and certainly not Yaakov] the great sacrifice she made in giving Leah Imenu the secrets signs that allowed Leah Imenu to become Yaakov Avinu's wife. No one else needed to know; it was enough that she knew it. She understood her own intrinsic worth. She did not need the validation of others. [See Emily Dickinson's poem, "I'm Nobody...] We need to work on our own inner world, our own privacy, and our sense of self worth.

Silence implies not just the absence of sound, but also an inward focus on self. Rabbi Weissblum notes that when Balak sought to receive prophecy, he isolated himself so that he could turn inward and become the vessel for prophecy.

We too need be silent, to turn inward and listen to that still, small voice within ourselves, adds Rabbi Wolbe zt”l. Rochel Imenu was the model of silent modesty. The truly modest person does not share information unless it is truly necessary. Psalm 91 says, "יושב בסתר עליון/Hashem dwells in the secrets of the most high." We who are charged with emulating Hashem must also strive to dwell in hiddenness.

But, as Rabbi Schwab zt”l warns us, this privacy and inwardness is not just about yourself, but also about others. Remember to respect their personal space and their private lives.

When we speak that which should not be revealed, we make public what should remain in the private domain. We make ourselves vulnerable to others, and we block the path of the redemptive process. Silence is not only golden, but the path to redemption.