From Insights and Inspirations
Published by the Ra’anana Community Kollel
Matos - Masei 5764
Ra’anana Community Kollel
Rabbi Binyomin Lipson
“And Billam the son of Be’or they killed by sword.”
Obviously, the Torah would want to tell us that the Jewish people eventually took revenge on the wicked Billam, who attempted to curse the Jewish people and who was ultimately responsible for the plague in which twenty-four thousand Jews perished. However, what remains a bit puzzling is why exactly we need to be told how this retribution was carried out.
Rashi explains that it was particularly appropriate for Billam to be killed by the sword because of the way in which he attempted to harm the Jewish people. While typically the nations of the world utilize conventional weaponry to destroy their enemies, Billam deviated from this approach by attempting to employ that which had always been the secret weapon the Jewish people; the power of speech. Indeed, this is part of what Dovid Hamelech was expressing when he proclaimed, (Tehillim 20:8) “These will fight with chariots, and those will fight with horses, but we mention the name of Hashem our G-d.” Thus, just as Billam turned the tables and attempted to use our own tactics against us, when it came time to settle the score, the Torah goes out of it’s way to relate that measure for measure, the Jewish people made the opposite switch utilizing the sword of the nations.
The Chofetz Chaim observed that the Midrash which Rashi cites teaches us that the uniqueness of the Jewish people lies in achieving victory over their enemies by using their mouths and not through the use of conventional weapons. Just like a master craftsman who, no matter how gifted he is, cannot produce a work of art or sculpture without the aid of his tools, so too, we as Jews cannot hope to succeed in achieving our mission on Earth without properly utilizing our tool of choice; our power of speech. What’s more, just as a craftsman whose tools are dull or damaged cannot possibly produce an unblemished product, if we damage our power of speech by speaking words of slander and gossip, we thereby undermine the effectiveness of our prayers and Torah learning.
The Torah tells us how the world was initially created, but what is the fuel that continues to keep it going? Where does the future lie? The Gemara (Shabbos 119b) relates that the world is sustained and thereby continues to exist due to “the breath of young children who learn Torah”. When the Talmudic Sage R’ Papa first heard this astonishing statement he turned and questioned his colleague Abaye, “Granted, Jewish children sitting and learning Torah is certainly important, but if Torah is what’s required to keep the world going, what’s wrong with mine and yours? Certainly our Torah learning should be far superior as we learn with a much deeper level of understanding!”
To this Abaye answered, “True, but the speech of children who are without transgression far surpasses even ours which is tainted by sin.”
If the power of R’ Papa and Abaye’s Torah learning was so weakened by whatever minute nuances of forbidden speech they may have uttered, what have we to say for ourselves? What are our Torah and tefillah really worth?
However, just as gossip, insults, and tale bearing, sully our mouths and weaken their strength when we use them for mitzvot, every good word that we utter in an attempt to support, encourage, and soothe the troubles of another person help to repair the damage which has been done and are a clear sign that we have begun a process of atonement for the mistakes we have made. Likewise when we speak words of Torah, daven, or recite Tehillim, we imbue our power of speech with holiness and sanctity, which in turn makes it even easier to continue using this most valuable and powerful ability to fulfill the will of our Creator.
Along the same lines, children must be educated from day one to use the gift of speech for what it was intended. When we select the books and other types of media that our children are exposed to we are giving them a clear message that “everything that you see here is acceptable.” Surrounded by a secular society in which rude, obnoxious, and conceited media characters compete to have the last laugh, the only way that we will be successful in teaching the next generation the positive potential of communication is by emulating it in our own homes and by ensuring that our children's peers (and teachers) share a similar view.
Our Sages tell us that the moment a child is able to speak he should be taught the verses of “Torah tzivah lanu Moshe” and “Shema Yisrael.” The approach which “gets in first” is always the most likely to be absorbed and the most difficult to uproot.
May we all be successful in utilizing our power of speech for the purposes for which it was intended and in passing down these all-important values to the next generation of Klal Yisrael!