1997Genesis 11:1 - the first verse of one of the best known stories in Biblical literature. The Tower of Babel: "va'yi'hee khol ha'aretz safah echat u'dvarim achadim - Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words."
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The Text repeats Itself here: safah echat (the same language) and d'varim achadim(the same words) are two different ways of saying virtually the same thing.
Rashi suggests an alternative reading of d'varim achadim. He emends the Text to read d'varim CHAdim which means sharp words. In Rashi's translation, "Everyone on earth had the same language and sharp words."
What exactly are sharp words? They are words that stab other people. They are words that wound another person's reputation.
We're so used to hearing sharp words that our sense of outrage has become dull. We crave the "juicy details." We want to know the "dirt." We are addicted to la'shon ha'rah. "You wouldn't believe that so-and-so did such-and-such."
Sharp words are not necessarily false, but they are words used as weapons to slice someone else
The Bible helps us understand what is meant by sharp words. The Hebrew chad - sharp - is often used in reference to a sword or arrow. The idea is captured in Psalm 57, Verse 5: "As for me, I lie down among man-eating lions whose teeth are spears and arrows and whose tongue is a sharp sword."
The words spoken by those who built the Tower of Babel were like swords wielding verbal stabs of la'shon ha'rah - stabbing others in the back.
In fact, Genesis Rabbah quotes the 59th Psalm to explain that those who built the Tower were punished "because of their sinful mouths, [and] the words on their lips."
The Tower could have been a good thing. The model of cooperation and partnership. People working together in harmony. But the builders of the Tower were a sharp-tongued people. And that was their sin. They used their common language to cut each other down. That's what made G-d so angry. And that's why G-d punished them by giving them different languages. They could no longer understand each other. Their words (once imbued with meaning) were now reduced to "babble."
Better this than la'shon ha'rah. When words are used to defame or belittle - for "hate-speak" or "rumor-speak" - better that language should be meaningless "babble."
The Text tells us that G-d ?balal sifat? - that G-d confused the people's speech. Why is balal used here - the only time in the entire Tanakh that this verb is used in reference to language? Why didn't G-d "restrain" their language or "silence" the people?
G-d confused the people's speech because the people themselves were confused about the purpose of speech. They were mixed up. They thought that words were intended to hurt.
The word ?safah? - language - is repeated five times in the nine short verses of the Text. Over and over again, the Text drives home its point about language. "Careful," It says, "language is a gift; it is a blessing. Do not use it frivolously or maliciously." "Use language to bring people together - to build community - to build people up."
Somewhere in ancient Babylonia there's a half-finished Tower standing uselessly - a monument reminding us that la'shon ha'rah halts progress and dissolves communal harmony.
Each one of us has been hurt by la'shon ha'rah. Each one of us has also used la'shon ha'rah to cut someone else down. But the damage done by la'shon ha'rah is irreparable. Once we've shot the arrow or the bullet, we can't go back and retrieve it. Once those harmful words are vocalized, they can't be taken back. They cut through the air set to strike someone's reputation - to wound someone's good name.
That is why our Tradition cautions us against saying anything negative about another person, even if what we're saying is true. The Talmud teaches that destroying someone's good name is just like committing murder.
There's a famous Hasidic tale about la'shon ha'rah. A man went through the community slandering his Rabbi. Feeling suddenly remorseful, he begged the Rabbi for forgiveness. "What can I do to make amends," he said. The Rabbi told him to take a feather pillow - cut it open - scatter the feathers to the wind - and then return to see him the next day. The man did as he was told. He came back to see the Rabbi and said, "Rabbi, am I forgiven now?" "No," said the Rabbi. "Now you must go and gather all the feathers." "That's impossible," said the man. "Of course it is. And though you may regret what you have done, it is as impossible to repair the damage caused by your words as it is to recover the scattered feathers."
It's not easy to give up la'shon ha'rah, but we have to try. Let's try to check ourselves each time we're about to say something negative about someone else. Let's try to speak about others as we would want them to speak about us. We must remind ourselves of the dual capacity of words both to hurt and to comfort - to build up and to cut down.
May we use language not to destroy or to hurt - not to build Towers of Babel - but to build real community and trust. To build people up and to speak about them with kindness.
Elohai nitzur li'shoni mai'rah u'sifatie mi'daber mir'mah - O G-d, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from deceit.
Prepared by David Kessel, Field Services Associate