As we have prepared for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, examining our lives and looking at ways we need to grow and change in the year to come, many of us have been engaged in the Elul Challenge this past month. We have worked hard to watch our words and avoid l’shon harah – the evil tongue, or gossip. As we have watched our words, it has become so apparent how powerful our tongue can be – and the destruction it can do. The words that leave our mouths – even when we are not gossiping – they can sting. For centuries, the rabbis have been obsessed with the power of our words. For centuries, the rabbis have urged us to watch our words. And still, for centuries, Jews have come to High Holidays services realizing that they have used words carelessly and caused hurt. Tonight, we will hear a few stories that implore us to find the strength to raise our speech to a holier level in the year to come. Perhaps, one of these stories will stick – and will be the trick to keep us from losing control of our tongue and engaging in l’shon harah.
Our first story tells the tale of the great Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi who lived during the 2nd century. Like many rabbis who would follow him, Rabbi Yehudah wanted to teach his students to be very careful how they spoke to one another. What did he do? He did not teach a lesson on l’shon harah or direct his students to the Torah. No. He called his cooks and told them to prepare a big meal for everyone, at which the main dish would be tongue.
Now the tongue of a cow is very tough. When the cow is alive, she uses her tongue to eat all kinds of sharp, pointy grasses, full of thorns and thistles. To cook tongue properly, you first have to soak it a long time, and then cook it for many hours until it gets soft. Rabbi Yehudah had his cooks make some of the tongue properly, soft and tender. The rest he left half-cooked. It was very tough and hard. Which pieces would you have wanted – the soft ones or the tough hard ones? Of course, when Rabbi Yehuda’s students sat down to eat, they all wanted the soft tasty pieces of meat.
“Learn your lesson carefully,” said Rabbi Yehudah to them. “Nobody here wanted the tough, hard tongue. Everybody wanted the soft tender pieces. It’s just the same when you speak to others. Remember, a soft tongue is the best. Always use gentle words and kind speech. And if someone is upset with you, do not answer in angry tones. Remember that a gentle answer turns away anger.”
Teshuvah Story 2: The Chickens
Rabbi Yonatan, who lived in the 1700’s, was well respected by the king of Prague, and often advised him on matters of state. Jealous of Rabbi Yonatan’s wisdom, members of the king’s court began speaking ill of him to the king. Initially the king refused to believe them and the gossip that flew from their mouths, but as time went on, the slander grew and grew until the king was forced to deal with it. If the rumors were true, Rabbi Yonatan was a wicked man. If the rumors were false, well the gossipmongers should be punished. But, there was so much gossip that the king was confused. What was the truth? An ardent fan of chicken fights, the king demanded a contest to resolve the matter once and for all and determine if the rumors were true. Everyone had to participate.
Each contestant – Rabbi Yonatan and the members of the court who were gossiping about him – had to train a chicken to be quick and vicious if they wanted to win the fight. The person whose chicken won the fight would prove his wisdom and talent, and would become the hero of the king’s court and help to determine the truth about Rabbi Yonatan. Now, Rabbi Yonatan had no interest in participating and had no idea how to make anything in this world vicious, certainly not a chicken. Nevertheless, he had to participate.
The day of the fight arrived. Each contestant brought a chicken that was groomed and trained for the occasion. Rabbi Yonatan brought a chicken too, except that his chicken was thin, weak and not at all aggressive. The contestants took their places and set down their chickens. The fight began. Immediately, the quick and vicious chickens began to attack each other. Rabbi Yonatan’s chicken, however, untrained in such matters, quietly made its way around the brawling birds while the other chickens were busy tearing one another apart. In time, Rabbi Yonatan’s chicken emerged as the last chicken standing – the only chicken unharmed. Rabbi Yonatan’s reputation was never questioned again. And the members of the king’s court began to watch their words and avoided, to the best of their abilities, acting like aggressive chickens.
Teshuvah Story 3: The Baal Shem Tov’s Students
One day, the 18th century Hasidic rabbi known as the Baal Shem Tov felt it was necessary to teach his students about the power of their tongues and the words that flew from their mouths. He did not cook them tongue. Instead, he instructed his students to go on a journey. He did not tell them why they were journeying or to where they would travel. He simply told them to go. The students did not ask any questions; they allowed divine providence to direct their wagon where it may, confident that the destination and purpose of their trip would be revealed in due time.
After traveling for several hours, the students stopped at a wayside inn to eat and rest. Now the Baal Shem Tov’s students were pious Jews who believed that they followed all of the laws of Judaism. They insisted on the highest standards of kosher law; when they learned that their host at the inn planned to serve them meat in their meal, they asked to meet with the kosher butcher of the house. They interrogated him as to his knowledge and piety and examined his knife for any possible blemishes. Their discussion of the kosher status of the food continued throughout the meal, as they inquired after the source of every ingredient in each dish set before them. Criticism, questions, accusations, suspicions flew around the table. There was no expression of gratitude for the food or for those who prepared it.
As the students spoke and ate, a voice emerged from behind the oven, where an old beggar was resting amidst his bundles. “Dear Jews,” it called out, “are you as careful with what comes out of your mouth as you are with what enters into it?”
The students, shocked, concluded their meal in silence, climbed onto their wagon and turned it back toward home – to see the Baal Shem Tov. They now understood the purpose for which their teacher had dispatched them on their journey that morning. They rode home in silence – fearful that their tongues might lead them astray once again.
Teshuvah Story 4: The Old Woman and Her Laundry
This tale is about a pious woman who lived in the Old City of Jerusalem about one hundred or so years ago. But the lesson she teaches us is timeless.
For those living in the Old City a century ago, washing clothes for a family was a chore of almost unimaginable difficulty. Water was not easy to come by and it was hot under the sun. After six hours of backbreaking labor, the pious woman hung her laundry out to dry on two clotheslines that were stretched between poles and went the whole length of the courtyard she shared with her neighbors.
That afternoon, one of the women neighbors came into the common courtyard on her way home. For some reason, she saw the two clotheslines with all the laundry hanging from them as hindering her as she walked to her house, as if there was not room enough for her to pass by unobstructed.
Instead of being understanding and stooping for a moment to get through, and keeping her good relations with her neighbor, her yetzer—her evil inclination—incited her, and she burst into a fit of anger and revenge. She ran into her house, grabbed a pair of scissors, rushed back out into the courtyard, and cut the two cords. The laundry, which was now clean and bright after all the first woman’s work, fell with a thud into the dirt of the unpaved courtyard.
The pious woman – the one whose laundry it was – heard the sound, rushed out to see what had happened, and was stunned. At that moment, she stood before a test. According to ordinary human nature, she should have started screaming and cursing at her neighbor and her ugly deed. The pious woman’s evil inclination was about to explode like a raging fire. But in a sudden blessed moment, she drew strength from the wellspring of her pure faith. After a few moments of shaking, she overcame this painful test, bit her lip, and justified heaven’s judgment, saying to herself, “Okay, I must need this challenge. May it be an atonement for me!’
She quietly picked up the fallen laundry, washed off the dirt, tied the cut clotheslines back together, and took the laundry to a large public courtyard some distance away, where she once again hung it up. In the evening, she brought the dry laundry home. She was in a good mood; but the incident was not yet finished.
When her husband came home after praying the evening service, she did not tell him what had happened to her in the courtyard! This second test—not to slander or gossip about the woman who tore down her laundry—was perhaps even greater than the first, because the Rabbis teach, “If you are troubled, talk it out to someone.” How much greater still was her test as she could certainly expect similar incidents in the future from this bad neighbor. Who could have blamed her for telling her husband? But, still, she controlled herself and said nothing to him.
No one would ever have known of this whole matter had not the woman who had acted out of control come to her neighbor’s house that night, ashamed of her mean behavior, and asked forgiveness for the ugly incident.
The pious woman forgave her wholeheartedly, and during their ensuing conversation, it came out that she had redone the laundry elsewhere and had not even mentioned the incident to her husband. The other woman was surprised to hear this; moved by her neighbor’s patience, she exclaimed, “May God help me learn to control myself—as you did—in my moments of testing!”
Few have found the strength needed to act like the pious woman. Many, however, have behaved in ways similar to the destructive neighbor. It took much more strength for the pious woman to hold her tongue than it did for the neighbor to let loose and tear down the laundry. Fortunately, through this story, we are visited by the strong, pious woman who encourages us this Erev Rosh HaShanah to discover similar strength inside of us and learn how to control ourselves in our moments of testing in the year to come