Parshas Matos begins with the discussion of vows. In the context of this discussion, the Torah commands us: “You shall not profane your words.” Rashi interprets this to mean that one should not make his words “chulin,” or profane. In other words, this is a general command against speaking d’varim b’teilim – meaningless words, wasted words. This seems like a strange prohibition. Why are meaningless words such an egregious problem? Lying, defamation, and lashon ha’ra 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? And in a deeper sense, why do we experience a unique pleasure in wasting words, simply talking for the sake of talking? In order to understand this, let us study the concept of speech.
The Power of Speech
Speech is the process of taking abstract, ethereal thought, that which is beyond the finite form of words, and giving it concrete form and expression. When one speaks, he takes his inner consciousness, his inner self, and expresses it outwards into the physical world. This is the very mechanism that Hashem used to create the world. He took that which is infinite and condensed it into a finite expression of that spiritual and ethereal essence. That is why the Torah describes Hashem’s creative process as a form of speech; Hashem “spoke” existence into being. Speaking truth means expressing transcendent, ethereal, and inaccessible ideas of spiritual wisdom through finite, comprehensible words. Ideas become words and the infinite becomes concretized. In so doing, a profound marriage occurs between the spiritual root and the physical expression.
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, he is misusing and profaning the spiritual tool of speech. When you teach someone a word of Torah, you plant a seed within your listener’s mind. That seed will ultimately grow and spread. If he or she teaches it to someone else, the seed you planted is now being replanted in many 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, all those future trees.
The Desire for N’vuah and Avodah Zarah
In order to understand why we have such a strong desire to waste time and do absolutely nothing, 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 drives: n’vuah (prophecy) and avodah zarah (idolatry). 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 n’vuah is the drive to connect back to our ultimate source, Hashem Himself. This is a deeply spiritual, existential desire for transcendence, connection, meaning, and accomplishment. 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, Ramchal, 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, and everything in it, 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 a 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 n’vuah and transcendence either, at least not to the same degree. Why is this? What has changed?
In the Second Temple Era, the Anshei K’neses HaG’dolah (Men of the Great Assembly) recognized the destruction that the overwhelming craving for avodah zarah was causing. A challenge is only worthwhile when there is a decent chance at success. At this point, klal Yisrael were no longer able to overcome the appeal of avodah zarah. It had become purely harmful, no longer a source of potential merit for overcoming it. It was no longer a challenge; it was a plague, a source of spiritual death. Something had to be done; the desire for avodah zarah had to be obliterated.
The Gemara (Yoma 69b) relates in detail the steps they took to excise the desire for avodah zarah from the human psyche. The sages fasted for three days and nights, after which the yeitzer ha’ra for avodah zarah came flaming out of the Kodesh HaKodashim. They were able to contain and neutralize this flaming inclination, which is why we no longer have the desire for idolatry While the decision to excise the desire of avodah zarah appears sound, the method for doing so seems strange. Why did the yeitzer ha’ra for avodah zarah, the most abhorrent sin, come from the Kodesh HaKodashim – the holiest, most transcendent place on Earth?
We can understand this seeming inconsistency based on what we previously developed regarding avodah zarah. Avodah zarah is a corruption of the desire to transcend and connect with that which is higher. When correctly manifested, this drive leads one to connect with Hashem in the deepest of ways – through n’vuah. The drive that emerged from the Kodesh HaKodashim was the desire to transcend. When it was destroyed, both the desire for idolatry and the desire for prophecy were destroyed along with it. Prophecy and idolatry are not opposites; they are contrasting manifestations of a single drive. The difference lies only in how the drive is harnessed, whether for evil and idolatry or spiritual transcendence and n’vuah.
It is important to note that although this drive was mostly destroyed, it was not, however, completely eliminated. We still possess a yearning to transcend, and we still struggle with the core concept of avodah zarah – to correctly and fully source ourselves back to Hashem. Nevertheless, this drive was significantly diminished, and the desire to transcend, which we feel now, cannot be compared to the original.
The Desire for Nothing
What happens when you remove an organ from the body? You are left with empty space. If you remove a kidney or liver, what remains is the empty space that this organ used to occupy. The same thing applies to spiritual organs as well. Within our consciousness, there used to be a spiritual organ, the drive to transcend. This organ generated a powerful desire to connect to that which is transcendent, to Hashem Himself. We had an antenna, a receiver, a transmitter that connected us to this higher dimension. This organ was also connected to our drive for achievement, accomplishment, and destination. It drove us towards our goals, towards living a life of purpose and meaning. But that was removed. What is there in its place? Nothing – nothing at all.
When we lost this spiritual organ, the desire to transcend, what filled that empty space is not simply a lack of spiritual desire. What took its place is an incredible desire to connect to nothing, to do nothing, to talk about nothing. But we have to understand that this space of spiritual emptiness is not simply a lack of spiritual desire. What was once the pleasure of transcending the self and connecting to something higher has been replaced with the pleasure and desire to exist in a state of endpoint and non-movement. Instead of speaking to connect to a higher world, there is a desire to speak for no reason at all. Instead of spending one’s life devoted to a higher truth, committed to growth and development, there is an incredible desire to simply waste time away.
Reclaiming Our Mission
These truths can be hard to hear, as the struggle described is a genuine one. However, we must acknowledge this deep truth. It is only if we understand our overwhelming desire to waste time that we can hope to maintain control over our lives. We need to live growth-oriented lives full of purpose and spiritual accomplishment. May we be inspired to harness the extraordinary potential within us, utilizing the power of time and speech to the fullest while wasting as little as possible. May we attempt to revitalize that spiritual organ within our consciousness, and use it to strive for greatness and truth, using our time in this world to build towards the ultimate Shabbos.
Shmuel Reichman is an inspirational speaker, writer, and coach who has lectured internationally at shuls, conferences, and Jewish communities on topics of Jewish Thought and Jewish Medical Ethics. He is the founder and CEO of Self-Mastery Academy (ShmuelReichman.com), the transformative online course that is revolutionizing how we engage in self-development. You can find more inspirational lectures, videos, and articles from Shmuel on his website: www.ShmuelReichman.com.