middot responsibility besorah controlling the tongue

controlling the tongue

Written by  rabbi benjamin ehrenfeld

art-yesnoYaakov’s short letter is loaded with instructions regarding proper speech. Yaakov reminds us that we oughtn’t swear by anything, but let “yes” and “no” suffice (5:12). He instructs us to not judge others with our words (4:11-12). He warns us to not speak as if we know our future (4:13-16). Yaakov speaks eloquently about the power of speech and the difficulty people have in controlling their tongues. He explains that one's mouth shouldn’t be able to both speak praise of God and evil against people – this is deep hypocrisy (3:1-12). In the beginning of his letter, Yaakov speaks of the value of silence:

Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters: You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry. Human anger does not produce the righteousness God desires. . . . If you claim to be religious but don’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless. (James 1:19-20, 26, NLT)

Yaakov is teaching us that it does not matter how kosher we may appear, if we let wickedness proceed from our mouths we are walking treyf. The ability to be silent even when we are angry, when we think we know better than others, and when we know a secret about another demonstrates self-control that is in alignment with the will of God.

Silence makes us honorable in overt and hidden ways with other people and with God alone. For example, you may never be thanked for not blowing up at a family member when you were frustrated (if you’re silent he/she may never even know you were angry), but if this self-control is a consistent lifestyle you will be known by that family member as trustworthy. Heaven will rejoice each and every time you refuse to be self-indulgent in anger even when the whole world is unaware. In time, the world will know you as one who refrains from such common outbursts. This is what Yaakov is teaching us: with religion being the outward expression of inner values, it can only be pure when our speech (and action) reflects those values. If it does not, our religion is of no avail.

May we exercise our ears more than our mouths. May we exercise our hearts and minds more than transient emotions. May our religion be recognizable by our silence in a screaming world.

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