I speak, therefore I am!
The Gemara Baba Metzia (58b) tells us that when Rav Dimi arrived to Babylon from Eretz Yisrael, Abaye asked him: “About what are they careful in the West – what Mitzvah do they especially adhere to?
The response was “they take extra special care not to embarrass others in public”.
Why was it that they were specifically cautious in Eretz Yisrael regarding this and surely this prohibition also applies to Chutz La’aretz?
Our Sages teach us of a critical story that occurred close to the destruction of the Temple.
The nation had fallen to a low spiritual state characterized by baseless hatred. The story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza was the pivotal event that ignited Emperor Nero’s rage and caused the destruction of the Holy Temple:
A Jew who had a friend named Kamtza and an enemy named Bar Kamtza made a feast. He told his servant to invite Kamtza, but by mistake the servant invited Bar Kamtza. Bar Kamtza took this as a gesture of forgiveness and put on his finest clothes and attended the feast. But when the host noticed Bar Kamtza, he demanded thathe leave.
Bar Kamtza was embarrassed. “Since I am here,” he requested, “let me stay. I will pay for whatever I eat and drink.” But the host refused his offer.
“Then allow me to pay half the cost of the whole feast,” begged Bar Kamtza.
“Then I am willing to pay the full cost of the feast, but do not embarrass me any more…”
The host had Bar Kamtza dragged from the feast and thrown into the streets.
Bar Kamtza stood up, brushed the dust from his clothing and said to himself: “Since the rabbis were present at the feast and did not stop him, this shows they agreed with him. I’ll slander them to the Emperor!”
Bar Kamtza went to Emperor Nero and told him that the Jews were planning a rebellion against him. “How do I know that to be true?” Nero asked. “Send an offering to the Temple and see if it will be accepted,” Bar Kamtza said.
Nero sent a choice calf with Bar Kamtza, along with a delegation of Romans. During the journey, Bar Kamtza secretly made a blemish on the animal, disqualifying the animal as a sacrifice, and the animal was not accepted.
The delegation returned to Rome and told the emperor that his offering had been refused. Emperor Nero was furious, and the ramifications of his fury brought about one of the darkest chapters in our history.
Rabbi Elazar said, “Come and see how great is the punishment for causing embarrassment—for G‑d assisted Bar Kamtza [i.e., He allowed Bar Kamtza’s plot to succeed because of the embarrassment caused him] and He destroyed His house and burned His Tabernacle.” (Gittin 57a).
Our Sages tell us that the Beit Hamikdash was destroyed due to the way the host publicly embarrassed Bar Kamtza. This not only brought about the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash, but also the repercussions of our two thousand year exile from our land and subsequent persecution – all due to one man publicly embarrassing his fellow Jew. Although Bar Kamtza’s reaction – informing the authorities, is a clear indication that he was not among the righteous of the generation, there was no justification for the way he was treated. Hashem punished the Jewish people for the lack of respect accorded Bar Kamtza and it was through this man who was an object of derision that the Beit Hamikdash was destroyed and the Jewish nation went into exile. These two people, the host for having publicly embarrassed Bar Kamtza, and Bar Kamtza himself for the Lashon Hara he had spoken, were together responsible for this massive destruction. One’s mouth is not “hefker”, it must be used cautiously for not only can it cause terrible damage to others, the speaker himself is harmed to no end.
This is the reason why when Rav Dimi arrived in Bavel he stated that the people in Eretz Yisrael were careful not to embarrass others. It was because they were actually witnesses to the great catastrophe that can result from publicly embarrassing a fellow Jew.
Parshat Matot relates the importance of speaking the truth.
“If a man makes a vow…he must not profane his word. He must do all that he expressed verbally.” (30:3). The Torah does not say, “He must not break his word.” The literal translation is, “He must not profane his word.” There is something special about that which proceeds from our mouth. Not fulfilling what we say is not just a question of breaking our word, but it profanes the very essence of who we are. We’ve all heard the expression, “I think, therefore I am.” Judaism has a stronger version: “I speak, therefore I am.” More than the realm of “thought,” the spoken word changes the type of person we are. Thoughts are ideas in potential; we bring them into reality through the modicum of speech. Articulating our most noble dream moves us a significant step closer to making it a reality. Judaism says that words are not merely sounds or vibrations in the wind. They are reality. Words take an idea out of potential and make it real. If we lie, then we lose the ability to express our ideas into a stable-secure medium, and so, we lose our connection to reality.
Speech is at the very core of our being. Therefore, it is of utmost significance to habituate our mouth to always tell the truth, for through this one becomes a truthful person.
Our mouth is a tool which costs us very little to use, but its effectiveness and power is incredible. Our mouth can build worlds or, G-d forbid, destroy them. In order to preserve this great power of speech, we must take extra care not to use it for profane matters – to use it exclusively for matters of holiness, Torah, chesed, and love of our fellow man. R’ Levi Yitzchak M’Berdichev said: “Hashem we recite so many selichot before You, all we ask from You is one word: ‘salachti’ – (‘I have forgiven’)”. Let us hope that Hashem will say “salachti” very soon and rebuild the Beit Hamikdash speedily in our day.
Lirfuat Moshe Ben Raya
Rabbi Shaul Yonatan Tawil