This is a pretty profound statement to be given by one of the great Sages of all time: silence is preferred. But upon second glance, maybe this isn't so radical. If Torah is about loving your neighbor, not doing what is hateful, and honoring Hashem, how many times can we count when our tongue accomplishes none of these goals? How many? Too many. So many, in fact, that even a great Torah scholar such as Shimon ben Gamliel said we should just zip our lips.
the weapon of death
Lashon hara is equal to the sins of idolatry, sexual immorality, and murder. —Talmud, Arachin 15b
This Talmudic passage packs quite a punch. It claims that our mouths can do with speech all that wicked people can do with serious intent behind closed doors. In fact, it can all happen at a dinner table, in your living room, or your local Starbucks. You can unravel, disseminate and bury someone all in one foul swoop over a latte, a Coke, or in your latest blog. Ooops.
If we remember that the universe was created by the words of Hashem, then it isn't so far-fetched to face this claim that we could be idol-worshippers, adulterers and murderers all through our speech. Passionate, self-righteous words at the table can bring us further and further from holiness as we attach slanderous words to people, lay hold of their lives and carry them to a predestined destruction. Is that what friends are for? No. But you would be surprised how many people who lay claim to being followers of Hashem tear apart the reputations and integrity of their fellow.
But why do people do this? There must be some explanation as to why people use their tongue for such evil purposes. One reason is quite simple. They have not yet learned to control it.
As a an untrained child will use any means to obtain something, so too will someone stoop to levels not fit for a follower of Hashem to obtain self-affirmation, glory, prestige or power. And how? All through that littlest member—the tongue. Sneaky, slick and seemingly innocent it is.
don't be a groupie
Four groups do not merit to see the face of the Divine Presence: the group of liars, the group of flatterers, the group of mockers, and the group of those who speak Lashon Hara. —Talmud, Sotah 42a
If there is any call for the masses to abandon certain cliques, this is one of them. These groupings are delineated by levels of evil. The group of liars, to be sure, do not promote truth. They create something false, which cannot stand and does not exist. As we recall how Hashem created the universe, He used speech and thus created something amazing which continues to this day. All a liar can create is a false tower which, upon revelation, has no choice but to come tumbling down.
The group of flatterers has not much better to offer the world; they bring about morsels of flattery only for the purposes of being admired for their words and falsely building up those around them. Both the flatterer and the receiver of the flattery suffer—for nothing is true and nothing comes to fruition. No true bricks, no building.
The mockers do nothing to tap into the spirit of the Creator. They merely seek to lay waste to all that exists in hopes of building up their own false kingdoms based on delusion and self-grandeur. As this is not linked to the Creator, it has no foundation and is destined to fail. Those who believe in their words will suffer as well, and those who entertain their words as wisdom will soon find that there is no basis. Empty words, empty power, empty promises.
Lastly, we are left with group that speaks evil speech. What can be said of this group is this: their speech does not lift up, does not create, and does not have the interest of the Holy One in mind. Those who partake in destructive speech, true or untrue, slash at souls around them. The fabric of reputations, airwaves, and all media is slowly eaten away with this kind of dialogue. And worse yet, there seems to be no hope to restore the power of good speech when the presence of negative speech is everywhere.
We can therefore understand that only speech which is creative, holy and productive is that which we should strive to achieve and allow to reach the airwaves of this olam.
"Before you open your mouth, be silent and reflect: 'What benefit will my speech bring me or others?'" —Rabbi M.M. Lefin of Satanov, Cheshbon HaNefesh