The Power of Words

Eileh hadevarim asher diber Moshe (Devarim 1:1)

There is a mystical idea that the content of the parashah read each Shabbos is connected to the events of the coming week. It is interesting to note that Parashas Devarim is traditionally read on the Shabbos preceding Tishah B’Av, which commemorates the tragic destruction of both Temples. What is the connection between them?

The following story will help shed light on the link between them.

One day in Yerushalayim, two old friends encountered one another on the bus. Excited at the opportunity to catch up with one another, they sat down together and began talking. In the course of their conversation, one of them casually mentioned the name of an old friend. The other replied, “You didn’t hear? She just got engaged last week to so-and-so!”

This news left her friend both elated and shocked. “That’s so wonderful that she finally got engaged … but to him? Who would have ever thought that she would settle for a person with so many problems?” Taking the bait, the one who shared the news agreed and proceeded to list problems not only with the chassan, but also with his family’s reputation. The conversation went back and forth, with each of them heaping more and more question marks on the match.

After five minutes, a woman who was sitting behind them turned to the gossipers and remarked, “I know you didn’t realize this, but I’m the aunt of the kallah that you’ve been discussing. We obviously didn’t know about these serious allegations against the chassan and his family. As soon as I get home, I’m going to call my niece to convince her to break the engagement.”

Aghast at the unexpected turn of events, the friends begged her not to do so. They explained, “We were just innocently chatting about recent events. We didn’t mean many of the things that we said, and most of them were exaggerated. Please don’t break up this engagement because of our poor judgment.” Just then, the bus reached the woman’s stop. The wise woman paused before exiting and taught them an invaluable lesson. “You have nothing to worry about. I’m not really her aunt … but I could have been!”

The Gemara in Yoma (9b) teaches that one of the reasons for the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash was the sin of baseless hatred of one’s fellow Jews. Many times such hatred has its origins in forbidden forms of speech, such as gossip and painful words.

Our verse opens the book of Devarim by relating, “These are the words which Moshe spoke to all of the Jewish people.” The Vilna Gaon reinterprets the verse to suggest that Moshe was addressing the need to rectify the sins which caused the Temple’s destruction. The verse begins, “These are the words that Moshe spoke.” And what were those words? The end of the verse can be read not as merely describing to whom Moshe spoke, but as the beginning of his actual message. Moshe didn’t speak “to the entire Jewish people,” but rather he told them, “Be united as one nation, not splintered into factions.”

Many people who speak negatively justify their behavior by rationalizing that mere words cannot cause actual damage to other people, a mistake made by the two girls in our story. Since the outcome of such erroneous thinking was a widespread hatred powerful enough to destroy the Temple, we allude to the importance of rectifying this sin by beginning the week in which Tishah B’Av falls with the reading of Parashas Devarim, as “devarim” means “words.”

As Tishah B’Av draws near, it would be appropriate to use the days ahead to contemplate this lesson about the power of our words and to attempt to rectify the sins which caused the Temple’s destruction.

Parashah Q & A

Q:Moshe commanded the judges (1:17) not to fear any man (i.e. any potential litigant). If a judge fears that one of the litigants may actually kill him, is he permitted to recuse himself from the trial in order to protect himself?

 

A: The Sifri teaches that even if a judge is afraid that one of the parties in a court case may kill his son if he rules against him, he is still prohibited from recusing himself from the case, as the Torah commands judges to rule fairly and honestly and not to fear the litigants. However, the Bach maintains that the question of whether this prohibition applies in a case where a judge literally fears for his life is subject to a dispute between Rashi and Tosafos, with Rashi arguing that in such a case the judge is not required to endanger his own life and Tosafos disagreeing. The Shevus Yaakov challenges the Bach, as the Sifri seems to state clearly that the judge may not recuse himself even to save his own life. To resolve this difficulty, the Shevus Yaakov suggests that the reasoning of the Sifri is not because a judge is required to endanger his life, but because Jews are in general not suspected of being murderers. However, in the event that the judge has concrete grounds on which to be concerned that one of the litigants may indeed try to kill him, he is permitted to recuse himself, as saving one’s life takes precedence over all mitzvos except for idolatry, murder and immorality. However, the Z’kan Aharon disagrees and maintains that the judge must indeed risk his life even if he has strong grounds to believe that it is endangered. Even though most other mitzvos are pushed aside to save one’s life, this mitzvah is different, as the Torah explicitly commands the judge to do his job and not to be afraid of the potential consequences.


 

Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email oalport@Hamodia.com.