The Jewish people are known to be an articulate people, and it is no secret that Jews love to discuss and debate ideas. An interesting example can be found in the generation of my grandfather, when many poor Jewish immigrants – mostly from Eastern Europe - had settled in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Unlike most of the non-Jewish immigrants who settled in Manhattan, the Jews did not go to a bar after a long and hard day of work; instead, they went to special places where Jews would gather in order to enjoy a good intellectual discussion. Some men would go to the local synagogue at night where they would study and discuss Torah with a partner or within a small group. Those Jews who were starting to break away from Jewish tradition would go to local cafes where they would engage in discussion and debate about the various secular ideologies of that period. Professor Irving Howe, in his description of Jewish life on the Lower East Side in that era, writes:
“By 1905, there were several score of these cafes, or as they were sometimes called, coffee-and-cake parlors, on the East Side. Each café had its enthusiasts claiming that it was the true center of Yiddish (Jewish) intellect.” (World of Our Fathers)
Irving Howe reminds us that this passion for discussion was rooted in the Torah culture that these immigrants experienced before they came to America. Regarding this culture, Howe writes:
“It was the word which counted most. Yiddish culture was a culture of speech, and its God a God who spoke.” (Ibid)
At Mount Sinai, our entire people heard the Divine Voice speak, as it is written:
God spoke all these statements, saying: ‘I am the Compassionate One, your God, Who has taken you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before Me.’ ” (Exodus 20:1-3)
And the God Who speaks calls upon us to speak:
“And these matters that I command you today shall be upon your heart. You shall teach them thoroughly to your children and you shall speak of them while you sit in your home, while you walk on the way, when you retire, and when you arise.” (Deuteronomy 6:6,7)
The above passage is found in the first paragraph of the “Shema” – the proclamation of the Divine unity. In the spirit of this passage, we pray the following words each evening before chanting the “Shema”:
“Therefore, O Compassionate One, our God, upon our retiring and arising we will discuss Your statutes, and we will rejoice with the words of Your Torah and with Your mitzvos for all eternity; for they are our life and the length of our days, and upon them we will meditate day and night.”
“For they are our life.” We are to use our power of speech to express the life-giving words of Torah – the Divine Teaching. In fact, we have a tradition to chant these words when we study. The Talmud states that articulating the words increases our ability to remember what we study (Eruvin 54a). In addition, the Talmud cites the following teaching of Shmuel, the sage:
Regarding the words of Torah, it is written:
“For they are life to the one who finds them, and healing for all his flesh” (Proverbs 4:22).
The Hebrew term for “who finds them” – motzaihem”- can also be read as motza-aihem, “who articulates them”; thus, the verse can be translated in the following manner: For they are life to the one who articulates them, and healing for all his flesh.
Why are we to be an articulate people? As we discussed in this series, our story represents the human story, and the beginning of the human story indicates that the human being is to be a speaking being:
“And the Compassionate and Just One created the human being of dust from the earth, and he blew into his nostrils the soul of life, and the human became a living being” (Genesis 2:7) - The soul of life became within the human being a speaking spirit. (Targum Onkelos, the ancient and revered Aramaic translation of the Torah.)
Other commentators on this verse, such as Targum Yonason and Rashi, also explain that the “soul of life” includes the power of speech. Why was the human being given this power? The human being is created in the image of the One Who “created the heaven and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). This creation was accomplished through Divine speech, as our sages teach, “With ten utterances the world was created” (Pirkei Avos 5:1). For example, it is written:
“God said, ‘Let there be light,” and there was light.” (Genesis 1:3)
The human being is to emulate the Creator by using the power of speech to create and strengthen life. In this spirit, we, the people of the Torah, are to use the power of speech for expressing the life-giving words of Torah; moreover, the words of Torah enable us to renew the heaven and the earth, as the Compassionate One said to us:
“I have placed My words in your mouth…to plant the heavens and to set a foundation for the earth” (Isaiah 51:16).
“I have placed My words in your mouth” – I have placed the words of the Torah in your mouth so that you may speak of them. (Commentary of Metzudas David)
The ability to articulate the life-giving words of Torah will never be totally lost from our people, as the Compassionate One promised:
“My words that I have placed in your mouth will not be withdrawn from your mouth nor from the mouth of your offspring nor from the mouth of your offspring’s offspring, said the Compassionate One, from this moment and forever” (Isaiah 59:21).
We have to do our part, however, by striving to study and discuss the life-giving words of the Divine Teaching. In this spirit, we pray each morning: “Please, O Compassionate One, our God, sweeten the words of Your Torah in our mouth and in the mouth of Your people, the Family of Israel.”
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen