Those who guard their mouths and their tongues
keep themselves from calamity. — Proverbs 21:23
An elderly Holocaust survivor, who was sharing her story of survival, also taught me an important life lesson. The woman described the terrible moment when she and her younger brother were just children when they were taken by the Nazis and put on trains heading to the concentration camps. Their parents had already been taken along with any extended family, so this woman and her brother were the only family that remained.
Once on the train, the woman, a teenager at the time, noticed that her 5-year-old brother hadn’t been wearing shoes when they were taken. She spent the entire train ride yelling and deriding him for not wearing shoes. She was furious knowing how important shoes would be in order to survive. But then again the boy was just a small child.
Well, once the train reached the concentration camp, the woman was separated from her little brother. She never saw him again; he did not survive the war. The woman told how since that incident she decided never to speak words to anyone that she would regret. In other words, she speaks to everyone in a way that is responsible and kind so that if it’s the last conversation she has with that person, she will have no regrets.
This sad but encouraging story reminds us about the importance of watching what we say, how we say it, and the repercussions that might follow. In Proverbs, Solomon taught, “Those who guard their mouths and their tongues keep themselves from calamity.”
The Jewish sages taught that we can appreciate this teaching on two levels. First, we learn that the calamity mentioned in the verse refers to judgment at the end of our lives. According to Jewish tradition, God is especially strict when it comes to judging our words. By the same token, one great rabbi taught that we cannot even imagine the Divine reward that we will receive for every moment that a person refrains from improper speech.
On another level, we also learn the practical lesson for living our lives without regret. We can learn the lesson that the Holocaust survivor learned tragically — that we cannot take back the hurtful words that we say, and they may leave our soul in turmoil for the rest of our lives.
Let’s resolve to tighten the reins on our tongue today. Let’s learn to tame the tongue every day. God gave us two gates – our teeth and our lips – so that we shouldn’t be so fast to let our words out. Next time we are tempted to speak in a way we will probably regret, let’s close our mouths – and open the door to God’s blessings.
With prayers for shalom, peace,
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President