Parshat Ki Teitzei
We live in a talk-saturated world.
Spoken, often shouted, words accompany, and sometimes bombard, us wherever we go. Announcements and pronouncements, analyses and debates, idle chatter and friendly conversation, and, yes, even a little gossip, fill the airwaves and ear-ways of our lives.
There’s no getting around it; we spend a lot of time talking.
We spend less time talking about how we talk, and even less thinking about how we might wish to speak to one another.
Parshat Ki Teitzei has a powerful set of things to say on those themes. Lodged at the geographic center of a parasha that details no fewer than 72 mitzvot (nearly 12 percent of all the commandments in the Torah), we encounter these words about the use, and misuse, of words.
“When you make a vow to the Lord your God, do not put off fulfilling it, for the Lord your God will require it of you, and you will have incurred guilt; whereas you incur no guilt if you refrain from vowing. You must fulfill what has crossed your lips and perform what you have voluntarily vowed to the Lord your God, having made the promise with your own mouth” (Deuteronomy 23:22-24).
Vows are verbal promises made to God, often expressions of gratitude for divine help, and thus constitute a specialized form of speech. Interpreters and commentators from the very beginning derive principles and guidance about talk and words in general from the Torah’s statements about vows.
The early rabbis notice seemingly repetitive phrases in Deuteronomy’s language: “You must fulfill what has crossed your lips …” and “having made the promise with your own mouth.”
The words have crossed your lips and the promise was made with your mouth. Why the need to say the same thing twice? In order to teach us that our mouths and our hearts should align! (Midrash Tana’im)
Here’s a beautiful lesson: Your inside and your outside are meant to match. The words that come out of your mouth ought to reflect what resides in your heart. How often do we say things that we don’t really mean, or mean things that we don’t really say? Until your mouth and your heart align, teach the rabbis, you’ve not said anything at all (Mishnah Terumot 3:8).
Or, as Maimonides summarizes the principle, “the rule among us is that the conclusion of one’s heart should emerge from one’s lips.” Mean what you say; say what you mean.
Ki Teitzei’s verses about vows closely resemble an earlier commandment in the book of Numbers. “If a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips” [Numbers 30:3]. The Hebrew phrase translated as “he shall not break his pledge” reads lo yahel d’varo, and from that formulation the early rabbis derive another important concept. “Do not make your words commonplace (hullin),” which is to say, do not cheapen or devalue your words. Hold your own words in high esteem.
Rashi pushes the thought a bit farther by transposing hullin — commonplace to hillul — desecration. Make sure your words do not become a vehicle for profaning God’s name. Recognize, in the words of the Sefat Emet, that “the power of speech is holy.” Torah came to us in spoken words. Words, badly used, can destroy and do harm; words, well used, can build and create and heal. Are our words desecrations or are they vessels of sanctity and godliness?
The Sefat Emet brings us back to Ki Teitzei.
“The mouth,” he teaches, “is the most inward of our limbs; all the breath and the inward self come out as we open our mouths. That is why the mouth needs special guarding … that is why this mitzvah requires full-time duty — day and night — because the opening of the mouth needs to be so guarded. The very root of a person’s life is in that inner breath. Guarding this stands at the root of all one’s deeds … the rest of our deeds all depend upon guarding the mouth.”
That last statement is powerful. How we speak determines everything. Our mouths and lips serve as the point of connection between our inner lives and the outside world. That spot needs special attention — guardianship, in the Torah’s language, full-time duty (tamid) in the Sefat Emet’s phrase.
We read Ki Teitzei each year right in the middle of the month of Elul, always just a few weeks before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Its lessons about how we speak are here, I suggest, to prepare us for the Yamim Nora’im.
As we focus on what is in our hearts, Ki Teitzei reminds us to attend to what comes out of our mouths as well. Mind your words; there’s a whole lot riding on them.
Rabbi David Ackerman is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.