The Divine Key to Long Life and Prosperity in 2023
By Annette Brownlee
Jan 11, 2023
11 Come, children, and listen to me; * I will teach you the fear of the Lord.
12 Who among you loves life * and desires long life to enjoy prosperity?
13 Keep your tongue from evil-speaking * and your lips from lying words.
14 Turn from evil and do good*
seek peace and pursue it. (Psalm 34:11-14)
A member of your congregation comes to you and says everyone is saying such and such about the new youth minister. What do you do? After a frustrating day with a difficult colleague you need to blow off steam. What do you do? At the dinner table your child starts to tell you what everyone is saying about the new kids in class. What do you do?
These three scenarios involve the ethics of speech. Scripture passages about the control of our tongues are many (think the letter of James). The many commandments about our speech have always seemed self-evident, if easily ignored. We are called to love and build up others (I Thess. 5:11). Then this past year my husband and I read through a small, odd book and I began to connect these commandments with God’s promise of long-life and prosperity. The book is a daily companion to the treatise, Chofetz Chaim, a detailed exploration of the laws of clean speech, which was written in the 19th century by the Polish rabbi, Israel Meir HaCohen Kagan (1839-1933). Chafetz Chaim means “desires life” and is taken from the portion of Psalm 34 quoted above. “Who among you loves life * and desires long life to enjoy prosperity? Keep your tongue from evil-speaking * and your lips from lying words” (v. 12,13). Quicky Rabbi Kagan became known as the Chofetz Chaim, a testimony to the importance of this treatise.
In the preface, he explains that his work came about because he wondered how it was possible that so many people disregarded the Torah prohibitions against evil speech (lashon hara). Evil speech is the first sin committed, he writes. The Serpent used evil speaking and gossip (both mentioned in v. 13 above) to entice Eve to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. (Gen 3:1-6). All of Satan’s strategies, he writes, are based on his ability to spread misinformation. The Chofetz Chaim soberly states, “One who speaks lashon hara (evil speech) attaches himself to a practice that destroys the world.”
Chofetz Chaim addresses the disregard of the laws of clean speech by gathering and organizing all the commandments and teachings on clean speech, given in the Torah, Talmud and early Jewish commentators. It is organized around the prohibitions against lashon hara (evil speech) and rechilut (gossip) and he gives multiple examples and cases studies. He is tough on us and cuts off all entrances to the slippery slope of ends which justify the means. “I was just….”
But back to the title of this treatise and this blog. Why, as the Psalmist, writes, is long life and prosperity connected to the control of our tongues? The Chofetz Chaim links it to what makes us human. Speech is the essence of life as we are given it by God. Turning to Genesis 2:7, he refers to the Onkelos translation of Genesis that translates living being as speaking being: “Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living/speaking being.” What God gives us is his own Spirit, which is a speaking Spirit. A spirit which creates and redeems through speech.
If you want a challenging, Scripture saturated study for 2023, pick up Choeftz Chaim or a daily companion. Read it as a family or a church study. I don’t need to say anything here about the destructive power of our speech, our tweets, our comments in the hallways or gossip in the guise of concern. Every use of our tongue is about our relationship with God and our neighbor in the most ordinary of situations. Our speech with and about our neighbor is the material of our own sanctification. Such is the world God gives us and redeems in Jesus, God’s speech in our flesh.
The full text of Chofetz Chaim: A Lesson a Day. The Concepts and Laws of Proper Speech Arranged for Daily Study (NY: Art Scroll 1995) is available online at sefaria.org/Chofetz_Chaim.