Humans are the apex predator on Earth. We possess superior intelligence, which we communicate through speech in order to cooperate with other humans, giving us a considerable advantage in forming groups, as we can pool workloads and specializations. Speech is the tool through which we actualize our intelligence and self-awareness.

Through speech, we have formed societies and built civilizations; developed science and medicine; literature and philosophy. Crucially, we do not have to learn everything from personal experience, because we can use language to learn from the experience of others.

The Torah holds language and speech in the highest esteem because words are tangible. Indeed, they are the fabric of Creation – וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, יְהִי אוֹר; וַיְהִי-אוֹר.

R’ Jonathan Sacks notes that the concept of covenant is a performative utterance that creates a relationship between two people – a mutual commitment created through speech. Whether it’s God giving us the Torah, or a husband marrying his wife; relationships are fundamental to Judaism. We can only build relationships and civilizations once we can make commitments to each other.

We make important decisions based on thoughts and feelings based on words on a page or a conversation with someone. It has been said that with one glance at a book, you can hear the voice of another person – perhaps someone dead for thousands of years – speaking across the millennia clearly and directly to you.

Given the potency of speech and language, the Torah emphasizes in multiple places: the laws of the metzora; the incident where Miriam and Ahron challenged Moshe; and even the Torah’s choice of words about the animals that boarded the Ark:

מִכֹּל הַבְּהֵמָה הַטְּהוֹרָה, תִּקַּח-לְךָ שִׁבְעָה שִׁבְעָה–אִישׁ וְאִשְׁתּוֹ; וּמִן-הַבְּהֵמָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא טְהֹרָה הִוא, שְׁנַיִם-אִישׁ וְאִשְׁתּוֹ – Of every clean creature, take seven and seven, each with his mate; and of the creatures that are not clean two, each with his mate. (7:2)

The Gemara notes that instead of using the more concise and accurate expression of “impure,” the Torah uses extra ink to express itself more positively – “that are not clean” – אֲשֶׁר לֹא טְהֹרָה הִוא. The Lubavitcher Rebbe preferred to refer to “death” as “the opposite of life”; and hospital “infirmaries” as a “place of healing.”

The Torah cautions us of the power of speech repeatedly in more general settings:

לֹא-תֵלֵךְ רָכִיל בְּעַמֶּיךָ, לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל-דַּם רֵעֶךָ:  אֲנִי, ה – Do not allow a gossiper to mingle among the people; do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor: I am Hashem. (19:16)

The Torah instructs us broadly not to hurt, humiliate, deceive, or cause another person any sort of emotional distress:

וְלֹא תוֹנוּ אִישׁ אֶת-עֲמִיתוֹ, וְיָרֵאתָ מֵאֱלֹהֶיךָ: כִּי אֲנִי ה, אֱלֹהֵיכֶם – Do not wrong one another; instead, you should fear your God; for I am Hashem. (25:27)

It’s interesting that both these laws end with “I am Hashem” – evoking the concept of emulating what God does; which suggests that just as God speaks constructively, so must we – אֲנִי ה.

The Gemara teaches that verbal abuse is worse than financial damages because finances can be restituted but words can’t be taken back.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe taught that as much as God creates with words, so do humans.

Of course, one major caveat on harmful speech is the intent. If sharing negative information has a constructive and beneficial purpose that may prevent harm or injustice, there is no prohibition, and there might even be an obligation to protect your neighbor by conveying the information – לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל-דַּם רֵעֶךָ.

Language distinguishes humans from other animals. It’s what makes us human. God creates and destroys with words, and so do we.

Rather than hurt and humiliate, let’s use our powerful words to help and heal; because words and ideas can change the world.

When Ahron is instructed to light the Menora, we find that the Torah emphasises something seemingly out of place:

דַּבֵּר, אֶל-אַהֲרֹן, וְאָמַרְתָּ, אֵלָיו: בְּהַעֲלֹתְךָ, אֶת-הַנֵּרֹת, אֶל-מוּל פְּנֵי הַמְּנוֹרָה, יָאִירוּ שִׁבְעַת הַנֵּרוֹת. וַיַּעַשׂ כֵּן, אַהֲרֹן–אֶל-מוּל פְּנֵי הַמְּנוֹרָה, הֶעֱלָה נֵרֹתֶיהָ: כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָה, אֶת-מֹשֶׁה – Speak to Ahron, and say to him; “When you rise to kindle the lights on the Menora, light seven,”. And Ahron did so; he lit the candles on the Menora, just as Hashem had commanded Moshe. (8:2-3)

Rashi notes that וַיַּעַשׂ כֵּן – that the person commanded did as directed, is not regularly found in the Torah; it is assumed that when God speaks to you, you do as told. Rashi explains that it appears here to praise Ahron. The Sfas Emes takes the praise to mean that Ahron was meticulous to light the Menora every day himself, when in fact, it could have been done by any member of his family. That is to say, he retained the initial enthusiasm for the job his entire life – וַיַּעַשׂ כֵּן as though that were the day he was instructed.

Later, we find this lesson lost:

וַיִּסְעוּ מֵהַר ה’ דֶּרֶךְ שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים – They travelled from the mountain of God a three-day journey. (10:33)

The Gemara in Shabbos teaches that this alludes to the Jews straying from their closeness to Hashem. They literally left where God was. Rashi notes that it was their departure from Sinai that cultivated their craving for meat – the manna was not enough. The Ramban compares their attitude to leaving Sinai to a child running out of school. They left Sinai – the place where they were exposed to God and the Torah – in excitement that the “class” was over.

The Chasam Sofer explains that had they not thrown off the yolk of Torah and fled like a child running from school, they never would have developed their infamous craving for meat. The Mishna in Avos says: “Whoever throws off the yoke of Torah, they place the yoke of drech eretz upon him,”. There is a fixed amount of input that must be channeled one way or another. Derech eretz here refers to physical desires.

This catalysed an unfortunate chain of events. The Jews were supposed to go straight from receiving the Torah into Eretz Yisrael. Yet, because of the attitude with which they left Mount Sinai, they developed their craving for meat. Because of their craving for meat, they were delayed for 30 days while many were lost to plague. This delay allowed the opportunity for Miriam to slander Moshe, causing a further delay of seven days while waiting for her purification. The episode of the spies followed, deduced from the juxtaposition of the episodes of Miriam next to the episode of the spies; due to which the fate of that generation was sealed. They were to die out over the course of the next 40 years, never to reach Eretz Yisrael.

It was during that time that Moshe Rabbeinu himself was denied the opportunity to enter Eretz Yisrael because of the incident wherein he struck the rock. Had Moshe Rabbeinu entered Eretz Yisrael, there never would have been a destruction of the Holy Temple, and the ensuing exile. History would have been drastically different.

What emerges is that Judaism is not exclusively about learning Torah and doing mitzvos, regardless of one’s intentions and attitude. Chovos halevavos, duties of the heart and spirit, are critical. It is because of poor attitude to how we relate to Torah and mitzvos that we find ourselves in galus to this day.

There is a proverb found in the Gemara – מילי בסלע, שתיקותא בתרי – literally; “Words can be worth a coin, but but silence is worth two!”.

It is intended to illustrate the power of being introvert, not speaking when not required.

The Vilna Gaon says that the etymology of the proverb is directly sourced the parsha.

סלע is a unit of currency, but literally translates to “rock”. Eldad and Medad foretold that Moshe was going to die and Yehoshua would bring them into Israel – משה מת, יהושע מכניס – Moshe was to remain in the desert, for the sin of hitting the rock and not speaking to it.

In other words מילי בסלע – if Moshe had spoken to the rock, then שתיקותא בתרי; the two, Eldad and Meidad, would have remained silent – never predicting Moshe’s downfall. Truly, the power of not speaking up.

A puzzling event takes place, wherein people start prophesying in the main camp when the ‘spirit of Hashem rests on them’. Two men in particular continue after the others stop. A lad runs to Moshe to report that אלדד ומידד מתנבאים במחנה – “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp”. Yehoshua leapt up and advised Moshe to imprison them. Moshe retorted that he wished everyone were a prophet. End of episode.

What exactly is the issue? Moshe’s reaction seems like a no-brainer? What is wrong with prophecy? And why the extra word במחנה – where else would they be?

Rashi quotes the Gemara in Sanhedrin that re-frames what transpired. They foresaw that משה מת, יהושע מכניס – “Moshe will die and Yehoshua will take the lead into Israel,”. Yehoshua took great umbrage at their outrageous claim, and Moshe calmed him by pointing out the prophetic nature of their words.

But where does the Gemara get the idea that these were the words of Eldad and Medad?

The Maharil Diskin explains that a look at Moshe’s beginning hints at his downfall. When the abandoned Moshe is found by Pharaoh’s daughter, she names him Moshe – כי מן המים משיתהו – “for I drew him out of the water”. There is an emphasis on the definite article – “the water”. Naming him משה was contingent on משיתהו – it wasn’t specific to “the” water. In other words, she could well have said ממים משיתהו – “for I drew him from water,”. The letters נ and ה seem extra as a result.

Returning to Eldad and Medad, the Torah stresses their prophecy was במחנה – which can literally be rendered מח-נ-ה – “erase the נה”. Erase the נה from how Moshe was named, and it says ממים משיתהו – the word ממים has the initial letters of משה מת יהושע מכניס. The emphasis of במחנה perhaps explains how Chazal understood what they truly foresaw – re-framing our understanding of the episode.