Rabbi Jonathan Gewirtz – The Power of Speech

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Operation Inspiration

One of the upsides of being home more because of Coronavirus is the opportunity to learn new things as my kids have school remotely. For example, I learned that I don’t remotely have a clue about the math my kids are learning and doing with ease (relatively speaking of course.) For some reason, the math THEY are learning doesn’t just have numbers in it. Seriously! They have letters too! And various lines and squiggles! I don’t pay too much attention though because more than five seconds makes my brain hurt.

I’ve listened in on seminary classes too, and was impressed with my daughter’s note-taking ability, not to mention the fact that she actually retains the knowledge. What I’m about to share with you now is a lesson I learned when my daughter was having her high school biology class. The teacher was speaking about bacteria and how babies didn’t naturally have them but shortly after birth their body does contain them. She asked where they come from.

One girl suggested they get it from eating. The teacher replied, “Well, I don’t know how long it takes for a baby to start having meals…” I stage-whispered to my daughter, “Psst! Say it is from the hospital. They have sick people there and that’s where the babies get it!” It sounded like an intelligent guess to me. My daughter shook her head. “I think it’s from the birth canal,” she whispered back. “So say that!” I replied. She looked at me wide-eyed and shook her head as if I was a crazy person.

The teacher continued, “They get it from the birth canal.” Now my daughter’s eyes were even wider, as she realized that she had been right. “Why didn’t you say it?” I pressed. “Because if I was wrong I didn’t want to look stupid,” she said. “Either way it would have been a thoughtful answer and nobody would think it was dumb,” I told her. And we left it at that.

It reminded me of a time when I had a very similar experience. As a young bochur in Telshe Yeshiva, I accompanied my older Chavrusa to the Yeshiva Bais Midrash (where high school boys didn’t generally go.) There was something going on in one of the back shiur rooms and the Rosh HaYeshiva R’ Mordecai Gifter z”l was addressing the room. As we approached, I didn’t understand much of what he said, as he discussed some ludicrous new hashkafa that had surfaced at the time and said the proponents were “empty in the belfry.” (A belfry, in case you’re wondering, is a tower that houses bells. If one is empty in the belfry, I guess they have nothing upstairs, though they might still be ding-a-lings…)

Then he paused and said, “Tell me; you’re all Americans. Which American President said Congress was empty in the belfry?” No one stirred. “Nu?” he asked, with his lip curled in his characteristic way. I whispered to my Chavrusa, “Calvin Coolidge.” It was a guess but even at 13-years old I knew that it sounded like a homespun, unpretentious comment he would have made. “Say it!” he motioned to me. I gave him that same frightened look I got from my daughter.

“I’ll tell you,” continued R’ Gifter. “It was Calvin Coolidge!” I’m sure he must have kept talking but that’s where the memory ended for me. I kept thinking of what might have been if I’d answered and been right. He probably would have praised me, spoken about my family since he was good friends with my grandfather, and I’d have had some celebrity. Instead, I got nothing.

And what if I’d been wrong? I was a little kid, who could blame me for not knowing? Besides, nobody else spoke up either. I was too young and inexperienced then to realize that the upside of proper words would outweigh the downside of making a mistake.

I think we all need to be a little braver in this regard sometimes. Sometimes we have the chance to compliment people but we figure it won’t matter. We don’t realize the tremendous upside our words can have; how we can brighten someone’s day. Instead, we opt for the “safety” of silence. If we thought about what might have been, though, we would often regret our silence almost as much as we often regret opening our mouths when we shouldn’t.

By all means, silence is golden and better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt. However, when you’ve got the chance to do a lot of good with what you can say, don’t be afraid to look silly. You might look a whole lot sillier if you give up the opportunity and miss out on the power of your speech.

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