Rabbi Reuven Mann
This week we read two parshas, Acharei Mot and Kedoshim. The latter exhorts us to live a life of holiness. This principle should regulate one’s behavior in dealing with basic instincts. The Torah has many regulations governing the food we may and may not eat and the categories of people with whom we may and may not cohabit. Eating and sexual indulgence are expressions of man’s animal nature and moderation in these areas is vital to living a holy existence. Control of one’s speech is also central to this endeavor. The urge to express one’s feelings and desires is even more difficult to control than the primal drives. Through speech man can vicariously gratify his aggressive tendencies, sexual fantasies and culinary proclivities. Thus the Torah is very strict in delineating the areas of permissible and forbidden speech. It also promotes the much overlooked virtue of silence. The Rabbis teach that there is nothing better for the well being of one’s body and soul than that of silence. This teaching is contrary to our natural way of looking at things. We are taught from childhood not to be silent when others attack us but to stand up for our rights and fight back. Thus we feel like a fool if someone insults us and we just bear it in silence. We admire the person who always has a great comeback and can put to shame anyone who mocks him.
However, the matter is not so simple. Most of the suffering people experience in life is brought on by their own behavior and speech. How often do we find ourselves in difficult situations because we couldn’t control our lips and said things which we have come to regret. The challenge is to be able to differentiate the significant from the trivial. We need not have an opinion on every subject and must learn that it is all right to say “I don’t know.” Of course we should not allow everyone to walk all over us. When our legitimate rights are being violated we should defend ourselves in a firm and intelligent manner. We must learn to abstain from retorting when it serves no positive purpose. One of the most unrecognized virtues is the ability to overlook silly offenses. This is true in every area of life. How many friendships, partnerships, marriages and families would benefit if all of us had the wisdom and discipline to know how to overlook and ignore things that need not be responded to. Of course we must all work to improve our sensitivity to others and refrain from doing or saying provocative things. However, we should also recognize that it’s not a mitzvah to become offended at every insult. Fortunate is the one who recognizes the benefit of strategic silence.