There are times in my life when I’ve used words inappropriately, whether it was in the heat of an argument with a loved one or a harsher-than-necessary reaction when disciplining a student. There are times when I’ve promised to do something, knowing full well that I would never have the time to do it. There are other times when I’ve opened my mouth, intending to say one thing, and instead said the complete opposite. We all know the rule “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Saying just the right thing at the right time is often difficult, but keeping quiet can be even harder.
Multiple laws in the Torah remind us of the power of our speech. The very beginning of the Torah is the creation of the world, which happens by God speaking about the light and darkness and it becoming so. Just as words from God can create and destroy the world, so too our words towards each other have the power to create and destroy. This lesson is driven home in parshat Vayikra, which we read this week.
When it comes to routine and ritual, the Torah has us covered. This week as we begin sefer Vayikra, the book of Leviticus, we find ourselves immersed in the listing of mitzvot (commandments) on how to live our lives. This begins with the explanation of the sacrifices that we are to give daily, weekly, and yearly. We learn that there can be a sacrifice made in times of joy and in times of sorrow. There is a special sacrifice for being guilty of a sin and others for complete thanksgiving. As sefer Vayikra continues, we learn about the laws of how to treat one another, how to engage in holy relationships, and how our calendar and meals should reflect our innermost values and desires.
Chapter 5, verse 4 of our text states, “Or when a person utters an oath to bad or good purpose – whatever a man may utter in an oath . . . if he realizes his guilt . . .” The Torah expects that uttering oaths will lead to guilt. In this section of text, the Torah is warning against saying you’ll do more than you can. “Say little, do much,” as we learn in Perkei Avot, was the original version of “Under promise, over deliver,” a lesson from which we can all learn.
Instead of letting words simply fall out of our mouths in the midst of an argument or in an attempt to have the last words in a conversation, we are reminded to think first about the impact our words will have. It’s like the adage that we ought to think twice before speaking once. If it isn’t necessary, if it isn’t positive, if it isn’t helpful, or if it isn’t attainable, then it isn’t worth saying.
Shabbat doesn’t have to be merely a time to refrain from work; you can take this opportunity to rest from the sarcasm, to rest from the unsolicited advice, and to rest from the circular conversations that leave us unfulfilled and unproductive. Say little, do much.