He had been waiting for hours, and it was finally his turn in line. He could barely wait. He had so many questions for this wise sage, so many thoughts on his mind. As he sat down, he could actually feel the sage’s presence; his gentle, thoughtful eyes peering deeply into his own. Suddenly nervous, he managed to smile and stammer out a greeting. The sage sat in perfect silence, and then, with deliberation and intent, said, “It is such a pleasure to meet you.”
Such simple words, and yet, each one was powerfully spoken with such intent, such care. All of his questions disappeared, replaced by a single one – one that he had been struggling with for some time. “If I can ask one question, how did you become so developed and deep in your thought?”
The sage smiled and thought for a moment. “I used to be very different. I spoke freely and didn’t give value or weight to my words. Then, I was afflicted with a rare medical condition, completely losing my ability to speak. Every word I spoke felt like a dagger in my throat. As such, I spoke very little. I began to value every word I spoke, debating long and hard whether it was absolutely necessary. Most days, I barely spoke.
“At first, I was miserable. I was stuck alone in my head, with no one to speak to. I hated myself, and I hated my life. But soon I realized that my pain was due to the fact that I had never built a deep, inner mind. The reason I used to speak so much was to get away from myself, to get away from dealing with who I was. I spoke so that I wouldn’t have to hear the emptiness inside my head. Once I could no longer speak, I was forced to confront my own inner emptiness. And I couldn’t stand it! At that very moment, I committed to change; I decided to fill my mind with thought, ideas, and purpose. I started feeding my mind, learning new ideas every single day. My throat began to heal, but my vision only strengthened. I began to share the ideas I was learning, but also began weighing my words more carefully. My voice returned, but I retained my newfound appreciation for speech. Losing the ability to speak taught me the value of words and the responsibility that comes with the gift of speech. Now, I am an old man. If there is one lesson I can share with you, this is it: harness the power of speech.”
Our Deepest Desire
As Shabbos enters, one can almost feel a wave of relaxation and reflection pass over the Jewish people. As human beings, we have the unique ability to step outside of ourselves and view our lives from an external, third-person perspective. While our default experience of life is internal and personal, we occasionally feel compelled to look at ourselves from an outside view and ponder the meaning and direction of our lives. In such reflective moments, we ask ourselves: “Who am I? Where am I going? Why am I living the life I’m living?”
Sometimes this reflection is inspired by an impactful speech or article; other times it results from confronting the concept of death; while for others, this reflection occurs when we step outside the hustle and bustle of daily life. We have all undergone this experience at some point, and for most, this reflection reinforces the same general principles: Life is infinitely valuable, we each have tremendous potential, and we have the responsibility to use this potential in making the most of the life we have been given.
However, while we all understand these values, there is another mysterious human drive that runs directly counter to them. We know the infinite value of time and the omni-significance of each of our lives, and yet, there is an immensely powerful human drive to do absolutely nothing. Observing society, or even honestly evaluating oneself, leads to the realization that most people’s ultimate desire and enjoyment rests in doing absolutely nothing: chatting endlessly, playing around, watching meaningless content, or just sitting around doing nothing at all. What is the root of this strange desire? Why are we – human beings who are uniquely capable of accomplishing the extraordinary – so drawn to doing absolutely nothing?
The Torah commands us: “Lo yachel d’varo – He shall not profane his words” (Bamidbar 30:3). Rashi interprets this to mean that one should not make his words “chullin,” or profane. In other words, this is a command against speaking devarim beteilim – meaningless, wasted words. This seems like a strange prohibition. Why are meaningless words such an egregious problem? Lying, defamation, and lashon hara are clearly harmful and negative; their prohibition is not surprising. Why, though, is wasting words so severe that it warrants specific mention? It appears to be neither harmful nor evil, simply unnecessary. Why, then, are wasted words so spiritually harmful? In order to understand this, let us study the concept of speech.
The Power of Speech
Speech is the process of taking abstract thought, and giving it concrete form and expression. When one speaks, they take their inner consciousness and their inner self, and express it outwards into the physical world. This is why the Torah describes Hashem’s creative process as a form of speech; Hashem “spoke” existence into being (Bereishis 1:3). He took that which is infinite and condensed it into a finite expression of that spiritual and ethereal essence. Speaking truth means expressing transcendent, ethereal, and inaccessible ideas of spiritual wisdom through finite, comprehensible words. In so doing, a profound marriage occurs between the spiritual root and the physical expression.
Our words therefore hold immense creative power, thus explaining the notable emphasis the Torah places on using words appropriately. Words can spread ideas that ripple and reverberate throughout the world, creating genuine and powerful change. When one wastes words, they take that very gift and use it for nothing. Instead of an expression of infinite spiritual significance, meaningless words are just that: meaningless. This same principle applies to wasting time. Time is the tool that allows us to concretize our infinite spiritual potential into that which is real – to actualize our loftiest goals and desires in this physical world. Wasting time takes the very gift of life, the opportunity to build eternity, and transforms it into nothing. Such a lifestyle is akin to riding a train that’s going nowhere or driving a car aimlessly in an endless circle: It’s pointless. Without a destination, without creating something meaningful with our time, we throw away our potential. Constructive breaks and time to reenergize are necessary and healthy, but a lifestyle of aimlessness is destructive.
Chazal compare wasting words to wasting seed. Seed has the potential to create and is the physical expression of one’s DNA. Words have the ability to create as well and are an expression of one’s spiritual consciousness and inner thoughts. Wasting potential is tragic, and it trivializes the power and beauty of properly manifested potential. When one has the ability to speak words of Torah, wisdom, positivity, and inspiration, but instead chooses meaningless chatter, they are misusing and profaning the spiritual tool of speech. When you teach someone a word of Torah, you plant a seed within their mind. That seed will ultimately grow and spread. If they teach it to someone else, the seed you planted is now being replanted in other minds as well. That single seed can end up creating hundreds or even thousands of trees. Wasting that single seed eliminates all that potential and all those future trees.
The truth of the matter is that we all know this; we feel this deep within ourselves. Every time we waste our time or our words, we walk away feeling a little empty inside, almost as if a part of us was just lost. We know that every day contains infinite potential that we can harness and actualize to create a better version of ourselves. We can learn a little more; become a little more sensitive, empathetic, and work on our middos. When we waste our time, that moment is gone, and a part of us that could have been is lost forever. When we spend our time productively – growing, learning, expanding – we carry that time with us forever, invested into the framework of our very self. The day is gone, but everything you developed and added to your personality and mind sticks with you forever. This is a taste of Olam Haba, where you experience the joy and ecstasy of everything you built during your lifetime.
The Desire for Nevuah and Avodah Zarah
In order to understand why we have such a strong desire to waste time and words, we must study the historical origin of this desire. Until a few thousand years ago, human beings had a nearly unquenchable desire for transcendence. This manifested in two unique spiritual drives: nevuah, and avodah zarah. Both of these drives embodied our desire to transcend the limits of the finite self to reach into that which is higher, that which is beyond us. The drive for nevuah is the drive to connect back to our ultimate source, Hashem Himself. This is a deeply spiritual, existential desire. As with all drives, there is a negative expression for this desire to transcend – the desire for idolatry. Idolatry takes the root desire for transcendence and corrupts it, using the drive to rise above oneself in a way that cuts one off from Hashem. The Rambam (Mishneh Torah: Avodah Zarah, 1), Ramchal (Derech Hashem), and others explain that the sin of avodah zarah lies in worshiping the intermediaries that serve Hashem’s functions in this world, rather than sourcing the world, back to Hashem Himself. The statues that idolaters “worship” are merely tangible representations of the higher forces they serve.
Therefore, there is potential for good in the root of avodah zarah – it is the process of looking upwards to the source of this world, to that which is beyond us. The mistake lies in stopping at the intermediaries, addressing those who are merely servants of Hashem. This is both misguided and evil.
While the ancient sin of avodah zarah may be easy to understand, its appeal is now almost impossible to relate to. In the modern age, avodah zarah seems foolish, senseless, and pointless. We are no longer enticed by it, and we cannot even grasp how one could be. However, this inability to grasp the appeal of avodah zarah is not incidental. The world has changed, the very inner workings of the human consciousness have shifted, and we no longer crave idolatry. However, we no longer crave nevuah and transcendence either, at least not to the same degree. Why is this? What changed? In our next article, we will delve deeper into this fascinating topic and try to answer this fascinating question.