The sense of speech and it’s ability to effect the world lies at the foundation of a Torah view of leadership and is directly referred to in two verses from the Bible: “There is but one leader of the generation–not two leaders of the generation.” The word for “leader” in this verse isdabar, which literally means “spokesman.” The fact that a ruler derives his authority from the power of speech is learned from the verse: “For the word of the king is authority.” A further connection between speech and leadership is found in the ancient Kabbalistic text Patach Eliyahu, where each of the ten sefirot, the Divine channels through which G-d creates the world, is identified by an idiom best describing its essence in one word. The last and culminating sefirah is malchut (“kingship”) which is referred to as “malchut peh“ (“kingship of the mouth.”)
The clear association between speech and kingship, as expressed in the above verses, ultimately refers back to the creation of the world by G-d, the King of Kings as is written, “Through ten utterances was the world created.” These ten utterances correspond to the ten times “and G-d said,” is written in the account of Creation as well as to the ten sefirot. The concept of Divine speech as the vehicle of Creation is encapsulated in the daily morning prayers: “Blessed is the One who spoke and the world came into being.” The Divine power to create through speech is mirrored in man, who is created “in the image of G-d.” In the verse “and G-d formed man from the dust of the earth and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul,” Onkolos translates “a living soul” as “a speaking spirit.” It is the ability to speak and communicate that ultimately separates us from all other living creatures. Along with the gift of speech comes the power to rule: “And G-d blessed them and G-d said to them, ?Be fruitful and multiply, replenish the earth and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves on the earth.'”
G-d’s metaphoric faculty of speech, being one and the same as action, is mirrored in man’s ability to effect his surrounding reality for the positive or negative through speech. We have all experienced words that wound, an inspiring speech that changed our mood, attitudes, or at times our entire lives, or a verbal command by an authority figure that established immediate order out of chaos. The Talmud, recognizing the power of speech, describes one who embarrasses another in public as a “murderer,” while the Sages point out numerous violations of Torah law caused by lashon hara, slander. Choosing our words carefully in order to cause good and not evil and being focused in their delivery is an axiom present throughout the written and oral Torah.
As a result of technological advances and the media, the direct connection between speech and leadership is manifest today to a degree greater than perhaps at any other time in history. Never has an individual had at his or her disposal the opportunity to address so wide an audience so quickly and at such frequency. If we understand all communication to be an extension of speech, then today’s common exposure to television, movies, instantaneous satellite news coverage and the telephone, fax machine, E-mail and internet, has presented the world with an unprecedented opportunity for widely effective leadership, cooperation, problem solving and harmony. As with any phenomenon though, a shallow concept of leadership can misuse these communication tools, leading the world into a spiritual abyss of crumbling cultural structures with nothing positive to replace them. The world saw how one man in Germany, through his mesmerizing use of speech and propaganda was able to wreak world wide havoc on an entire generation. Especially in contemporary politics we see the media’s allusion of leadership geared to one minute sound bites, thereby reducing in-depth treatment of complex issues to catch words and slogans.
Another connection between speech and leadership is found in one of the most ancient texts of Kabbalah, Sefer Yetzirah, attributed to Abraham and according to most authorities edited by Rabbi Akiva. The book deals almost entirely with the ten sefirot, and the twenty-two Hebrew letters, the building blocks of creation. In Sefer Yetzirah, the twenty-two letters are divided into three sub-groups, based on both grammatical and spiritual considerations: three “mother” letters, seven “double” letters and twelve “simple” letters. Each of the twelve simple letters is the spiritual source of one of the twelve months of the year, as well as the twelve tribes of Israel?the sons of Jacob. Sefer Yetzirah further identifies each letter with a specific sense in the soul and a certain limb or organ in the body.
The first of the simple letters is hei, the spiritual power enclothed within Nissan, the first month of the year. This is the month of Passover, when the Jewish people were freed from Egyptian bondage. The tribe associated with this month is Judah, who was blessed by both Jacob and Moses to be the leader of all the tribes. It is from Judah that future kings would arise, most specifically King David and his lineage, culminating inMashiach, the son of David. The sense in the soul of the month of Nissan is speech, while the limb of the body associated with the month is the right foot, alluding to the forward thrust of leadership. The connection between speech and leadership, implied in both the designation of Nissanin the Mishnah and Jewish law as the New Year of months and Jewish kings, and the tribe of Judah, appointed through prophesy by Jacob and Moses to be the leader of the tribes requires a deeper understanding.
When we speak of a “sense” of speech, we refer to it in a rectified state, in contrast to the above-mentioned perversions of the power of communication. An allusion to rectified speech is contained in the name “Judah,” who as mentioned above is the tribe associated with Nissanand speech. The root of the word “Judah,” hod, has multiple meanings, each one connected to a particular aspect of speech. Depending on its context, hod can mean to acknowledge, thank, praise, confess or glorify. Judah received his name from his mother Leah: “This time I will praise (hod) G-d.” The ability to praise and acknowledge comprise the basic attitude reflected in the Psalms of David and in all subsequent formal prayer as formulated by the sages. A Jew upon rising in the morning declares: “Thankful (modeh, from the root hod) am I before You, O’ living and eternal King, that You returned to me my soul, great and merciful is Your faithfulness.”
An additional aspect of acknowledgment, connected to another meaning of hod, is the ability to confess misdeeds and shortcomings. The root of the word “confession” viduiy, is similar to the root of “Judah” hod. When confronted by his daughter-in-law Tamar, regarding her suspected infidelity, Judah openly confessed his mistake by publicly declaring: “She is more righteous than I.” Through his admittance of guilt, Judah became the first person in the Torah to accept responsibility willingly, thereby making him the archetypal example of correct repentance. His ancestor King David likewise had the strength of character to acknowledge personal failings when confronted by the prophet Natan by declaring: “I have sinned to G-d.”
The different meanings of hod–acknowledgment, praise, thanks, confession and glory–when applied to speech, relate to one of the most important teachings of the Ba’al Shem Tov. He taught that all service of G-d is a three stage process: submission and humbleness, hachna’ah,separation and clarification, havdalah, and sweetening and rectification, hamtakah. The first stage of Divine service, that of submission and humbleness, correspond to the above aspects of acknowledgment, praise, and thanksgiving; all of which depend on accepting the reality of a higher force and recognizing our need to adjust our behavior appropriately.
Separation and clarification is the second stage of Divine service, where the Torah is not simply learned but plays a decisive role in directing one’s thoughts, speech and action. In the paragraph following the Shema, the cardinal declaration of G-d’s oneness, we are urged: “teach them to your children and speak of them when you lay down and rise up…” The Talmud comments: “speak of them, and not other things,” implying that Torah should not be a subject to be simply learned, but an all encompassing life style to be lived. When we separate ourselves from the transitory and mundane and immerse ourselves in Torah, then even speech relating to “secular” aspects of life can be infused with spirituality and may serve as examples to others. This is reflected in the Talmudic statement: “even the mundane speech of the sages is Torah.”
The culminating stage in the service of G-d is hamtakah, sweetening and rectification. This relates to the most common translation of hod as “glory,” as in the phrase: “the glory of kingship.” The level of speech alluded to here is speech that “leads,” by elevating and inspiring others. Rectified speech reflects the Divine creative process and the power to sweeten reality.
This power is clearly seen in the following verse: “Anxiety in a man’s heart depresses it, but a good word gladdens it.” The word “depresses it” is interpreted by the Sages to mean “speak it out;” alleviate worry in the heart and sweeten reality through “speaking it out”
Although the Mashiach is conceived of as both a military and political leader, he will ultimately conquer the world through speech–by illuminating all of Israel and the world with the light of Torah. At that time the prophesy of Zephania will be fulfilled: “For then I will convert the peoples to a purer language, that they may all call upon the name of G-d, to serve Him with one consent.”