Speech is one of the most powerful tools a human being possesses. We use it for nearly every aspect of our lives, and speech can have long lasting effects, whether intended or unintended. We use it to communicate, we use it to express our feelings, and of course we use it to pray. What we say in public and in private impacts not only ourselves and the people around us, and our words are never “just words.” Our word choices can make or break nearly every situation.
Regulating speech is clearly a murky area, with the First Amendment ensuring every U.S. citizen’s right to freedom of speech; but just because we have freedom of speech doesn’t mean we have to actually say everything. Yes, you may have a right in this country to be offensive or rude, or worse, but obviously anyone that cares about the wellbeing of society will ensure that this great tool endowed by their Creator will only be employed in the most beneficial manner.
Torah considers speech to be a form of action, as opposed to thoughts which have no visible physical attribute. Thus, Jewish law contains many rules relating to speech, put in place to ensure that a Jew uses his speech only for decent purposes. Of course, there is prayer and Torah study, which utilize our speaking abilities — both require one’s lips to move in order to be considered valid.
But it’s not just speech as it relates to rituals that is significant; not only when we’re in a mode of spirituality and holiness, in the synagogue or at a Torah lesson, do we have to ensure that our words are holy. Everything a Jew says, regardless of the circumstances, should always be imbued with a form of holiness to guarantee that their words are utilized properly.
You can tell a lot about a person by how they speak and the words they choose. This obviously isn’t referring to words of prayer and Torah; someone can be in the synagogue three times a day and attend Torah study several times a week, but outside of the synagogue setting their speech will be vulgar and disrespectful of others. They will insult anyone that disagrees with them and humiliate people they view as inferior. And while that is certainly their right, it also tells you something about their spirituality. If you aren’t deliberate in your day-to-day speech and you don’t think before speaking, then guess what — your prayer and Torah study are certainly lacking too.
Free speech means you have the right to make the correct choices in how your words are employed. You can choose to be kind and uplifting to others, or you can choose to be degrading and rude. And that tells the world around you everything there is to know about you.
This metric can also be applied to other areas of life. For example, a person who gives 10% of his income to charity is certainly commendable; but what he does with the remaining 90% is the real gauge of his character. It is certainly your right to use your own money at your discretion, but what you choose to spend it on indicates where your heart truly is.
The same goes for what we do in our leisure time, or what we eat, and how we entertain ourselves; and so on. We have the right to choose whether our day-to-day activities will be refined, imbued with holiness, or the opposite. And it’s a free country, so we really can make that decision for ourselves.