Voice Commands: What’s in a Word?

Parsha Musings by Rabbi Shmuel Wagner: Whichever side you highlight, will be strengthened. Whichever attribute you choose to focus on, will become more dominant.

By Rabbi Shmuel Wagner

Let’s play a game:

I’ll start a מאמר חז”ל and you finish it off with what immediately comes to mind [1].


Did you think of “אמור אל הכהנים” from this week’s פרשה, or “אמור מעט” from פרקי אבות?

Do you see where I’m going with this?

We know that the very name of a פרשה enlightens us with a lesson independent from the various מצות in the פרשה. Thus, the very name “אמור”, “Say”, connotes a lesson of increasing in speech. On the other hand, “אמור מעט” means to decrease in speaking. How do those two “אמור”s work together?!

A good guess would be, that while “אמור מעט” refers to general speech, which should be decreased, the instruction of “אמור” refers to saying words of תורה, which, ostensibly, should be ever more.

Ready to be surprised?

On the contrary: “אמור מעט” refers to תורה! As the רמב”ם explains this משנה (quoting a גמרא), one should always seek to learn and teach תורה using as few words as possible! (Note to self.)

So, if “אמור מעט” is referring to תורה, what could “אמור” possibly be talking (pun intended) about?! Can we dare say that there is some sort of speech more important than learning תורה?!


What is in a word?

A lot.

I am sure that everyone has, at one point or another, come across the importance of positive speech, specifically in the context of educating one’s students or one’s children.

A soft-yet-stern “You are disturbing, please stop!” or, “You are annoying your brother, please don’t do that!” are taught to be replaced with a smiling-yet-firm, “I know that you can look inside your Chumash and follow along with the class!” or “I am confident that you can play nicely with your brother, please show me!”

We all went to those workshops. We all listened to those lectures and sat through those speeches. We all committed to carrying the concept into our classrooms and cozy cocoons called home.

We tried it once, we tried it twice. We thought it was nice, so we tried it thrice.

And then?

I don’t know, somewhere along the way we just don’t see it succeeding, we don’t witness it working, so we abandon it for our reflexive response of “MENDEL! STOP!” “CHAYA! QUIET!”, which, hey, usually seem to work.

Ready for the paradigm-shift?

Your positive words always work. Your smiling language always achieves and accomplishes.

The catch is, we do not always see its effect. Granted. But, has technology not unequivocally proven that not every energy is visible to the naked eye? Have science and medicine not demonstrated that power is not limited to what can be discerned by the optical organ?

The world has come to the point where we know that we cannot see everything taking place around us, even while on a minute-to-minute basis, they play important – nay, vital – roles in our lives.

This is not news for Jews.

The Midrash relates a spooky story (במדבר רבה יב, ג):

Rabbi Avahu was sitting and learning, when he saw a fellow run by him, chasing his friend while waving a small branch. Ok, innocent enough.

Suddenly, Rabbi Avahu froze in terror. He ran after the man holding the branch and cried out, “Stop! Do not strike your fellow, for you may kill him!”

The man looked at Rabbi Avahu, looked at his branch, and looked back at Rabbi Avahu incredulously. “Rebbe, with this branch I might kill him?!”

Rabbi Avahu answered, “Yes! You do not see it, but with my spiritual perception I am able to see a demon running alongside you, brandishing an iron club! You will hit him with the branch, triggering the demon to strike him with the club, which will surely kill him!”

Yes, as Yidden we always knew of the existence of spirituality, and more importantly, the Power of Hashem’s unseen Presence.

And, as Yidden, we were also taught long ago how to harness that invisible energy:

Voice commands.

We all know the story:

One of the Yidden in Ba’al-Shem-Tov-era Mezhibuzh ran into the Shul screaming that he would tear his rival like a fish. The Ba’al Shem Tov gathered his students, The Holy Brotherhood, and placed them in a circle, with each man’s arms over the shoulders of those next to him.

The Ba’al Shem Tov instructed them to close his eyes, while he laid his holy arms over the shoulders of the two students on his sides, closing the circle. Instantly, the students began screaming in terror, as they saw, with their minds’ eyes, the vivid imagery of this Yid tearing his fellow as a fish. [Have you ever tried imagining it? Extremely brutal and gory…]

“You see,” the Ba’al Shem Tov told his students, “Every word we utter has a real effect. If not in physical realms that we can see, then in spiritual realms, which are no less real.”

When your child is acting up, when your student is misbehaving, you are being presented with the paradox of life: A perpetually positive person with a permanently pure Neshama, however, expressing him/herself in a negative way. In other words, there exists both positivity and negativity in this situation, and either one can be highlighted.

Whichever side you highlight, will be strengthened. Whichever attribute you choose to focus on, will become more dominant.

As the מדרש in this week’s פרשה states, just as Hashem builds worlds with His Power of Speech, you too can build worlds – or חס ושלום destroy them –with your words, with your vernacular, your voice.

It is up to you.

If you choose to highlight the negative – “You are disturbing!” – you have just strengthened the child’s attribute of disturbing. Yes, that is the power of your words.

If you choose to highlight the positive – “I know you are better than that!” – you just strengthened the good. You just removed the layers of negativity covering over that child’s Neshama and allowed its pure essence to shine forth!

Do we always see this effect that our words affect? Not always. But Torah gives us a guided tour into the invisible reality, so that we can rest assured that we are accomplishing positivity, by speaking positivity.

This is the lesson and instruction of “אמור”. This is what Hashem wants us to speak, always. Positively. About our children, about our students, about ourselves.

Because our voice – commands.

[1] [My favorite example, while not the point of this article, is when I start off “כל המוסיף…”: you would be correct by finishing off with either “…מוסיפין לו”, or with “…גורע”, which, now that you ponder it, are direct opposites… This game demonstrates how these divine dictums and sagacious sayings need to be quoted in context, and not merely picked out of a Google search.]

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