Sabbath Meditation, Musings on the Tongue

Our Shabbat table cloth is laid. A friend in the congregation bought it for us. It is a designer table cloth and probably cost hundreds of dollars. It is more than we would have dared spend. But love calls for occasional extravagance. A man may buy his wife diamonds and pearls for a few special occasions in life. Someone has helped us treat the Sabbath with extravagant love.

I hope you are preparing for your Sabbath, if you are Jewish. If not, then I do hope this Sabbath meditation will add a little joy to your weekend.

I chose this subject because of an interesting lecture I heard yesterday at the Atlanta Jewish Community Center. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin came to speak and I was glad I found out about it. R. Telushkin is the author of a number of helpful books including Jewish Wisdom, Jewish Literacy, and his latest, A Code of Jewish Ethics. I highly recommend them.

First, before I get into my topic, I’d like to say something to a Christian audience. Having gone from secularism to Christianity to Messianic Judaism, I sometimes notice differences in these three worlds. At the Telushkin lecture, we were seated banquet style in a large room, the size of a hotel ballroom. About half of the attendees had paid for a simple vegetarian lunch, myself included. It became obvious at the time the lecture was due to start that there were not enough chairs.

I have been at Christian functions where the same thing happened. But here I noticed something different. There was a Jewish ethic apparent in the room. Whereas at Christian functions I have seen people stand or sit on the floor, this was not going to happen at the Jewish Community Center. The center staff kept bringing in chairs until every single person had a seat. I do think there is something different in the Jewish and Christian ethic: the Jewish ethic focuses a bit more in this world and on humanity. Every human being is important. Sometimes I think Christians fail to connect this-worldly ethics with other-worldly faith. But the best way to love God is to follow the second greatest commandment.

All that aside, my topic for this Sabbath meditation is about the tongue, the ethic of words. I want to share two stories. One I have read in one of R. Telushkin’s books (Jewish Wisdom) and the other he told at the event. I will tell the stories in my own words:

A man had been for some time going about town speaking ill of the town rabbi. One day, realizing how malicious his comments had been, he went to the rabbi and asked for forgiveness. The rabbi said he would forgive him on one condition: that the man would go home, cut up a feather pillow, and scatter the feathers to the winds. The man did as the rabbi asked and came back.

“Am I now forgiven?” he asked.

“One more thing,” the rabbi said, “go and retrieve all the feathers.”

“I can’t find them all,” the man said.

“Exactly,” said the rabbi, “and neither can you get back all the things you said about me which caused harm to my reputation.”

The second story is on the same topic, lashon hara, the wicked tongue and the sin of slander:

The Chofetz Chaim, a Jewish teacher who died in 1932, was very famous in the Jewish world. Yet as photographs were still not common in those days, most people who knew his writing did not know what he looked like.

One day, the Chofetz Chaim was on a train riding to a town where he was scheduled to speak at a major event. A man sitting next to him struck up a conversation. “I am on my way to hear the Chofetz Chaim. Now there is a man of God and such a scholar. He is a saint.”

The Chofetz Chaim was embarrassed and said, “I know this Chofetz Chaim you speak of. He is not such a saint if you get to know him. And his scholarship is really not so great.”

Upon hearing these words the man became red in the face, trembled, and after an awkward pause, he slapped the Chofetz Chaim in the face. “How dare you insult such a saint and scholar! You are not worthy to be in the room with him!”

The Chofetz Chaim apologized and later told the story. He said he learned one thing, “Lashon hara is always evil, even if you speak it against yourself!”

This Shabbat, consider how your words have been used to denigrate and dehumanize other people. Consider that you cannot truly undo your slander any more than the man could get back his feathers.

Shabbat is about family, so start there. Consider ways your words cut down and hurt. Talk about it. Ask forgiveness. Change.

“Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” (Proverbs 12:18).


About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
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