They weren’t pretty and they weren’t for genteel company, and historians now debate how appropriate they were at the time. But the fact of the matter remains that the wartime speeches of General George Patton have contributed to making him one of the most motivational and inspiring military leaders in US history.

In the throes of the darkest days of WWII, he regularly rallied his troops with tough talk that could make one’s hair stand on end. And boy oh boy, did his words hit home and inspire his soldiers.

His best known speech occurred on June 5, 1944, just before D-Day. It was so effective that author Terry Brighton called it “The greatest motivational speech of the war and perhaps of all time, exceeding (in its morale-boosting effect if not as literature) the words Shakespeare gave King Henry V at Agincourt.”1

Patton believed in his men and he inspired them accordingly. Indeed, under Patton, the Third Army landed in Normandy and went on to play an integral role in the last months of the War. The rapid offensive he called for brought the Third Army wide acclaim.

Two Forms of Speech

Parshat Haazinu is a sort of swansong, a stirring poem recited by Moses on his final day on this earth. The opening words are:

Listen, O heavens, and I will speak! And let the earth hear the words of my mouth!2

Moses tells the heavens that he will “speak” to them. As for the earth, she will hear “the words” of his mouth. In the original Hebrew, these words are “dibur” for the former, and “amirah” for the latter.

Generally speaking, dibur is a harsher form of speech,3 more “straight-talk,” whereas amirah is softer, more diplomatic.4 Accordingly, Moses spoke more harshly and truthfully to the heavens, reserving the softer, kinder talk for the earth.


Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya and the Athenian Sages

To get to the bottom of this, we’re going to take a detour and explore a puzzling Talmudic story.

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya was one of the preeminent sages who lived in Israel under Roman rule shortly after the destruction of the Second Temple. On a mission to Rome to speak to the authorities, he challenged the scholars of Athens in front of the emperor, claiming, “We are wiser than they.” The Talmud proceeds to tell of an elaborate string of events that eventually saw the rabbi cunningly sneak his way into the Athenian academy and stand face to face with the elders of Greece.

A lively discussion ensued, and one the Athenian scholars asked Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya a riddle:

In the case of a certain man who goes and asks to marry a woman and her family does not give her to him, why would he see fit to go to a family that is greater than the first?

Rabbi Yehoshua took a peg and stuck it into the lower part of the wall, but it did not go in. He then stuck it into the upper portion of the wall, and it went in.

Rabbi Yehoshua said to them, “So it is with the one seeking a wife. Perhaps he will find the girl destined for him.”5

What is the meaning of this puzzling story?

How to Speak to People

It’s plain that the entire debate was metaphorical. One suggested interpretation is that they were debating what to do when you see a person doing something they shouldn’t be doing. Should you say something? And if so, what’s the optimal way to go about it?

Intuitively, most people first try a gentle, soft-spoken approach—going over to the offending party and trying to get them to come round with kind, encouraging words.

But that doesn’t always work. What then?

The Athenian sages said, “If you try once with gentle efforts and it doesn’t work, there’s no use trying again. Why even bother with another family if the first one refuses? It won’t work. Forget it.”

But Rabbi Yehoshua taught them a deep truth about the soul: a person can always be better. You can speak to the person’s higher self, the part being covered up by their current behavior.

When the usual soft talk isn’t working, there’s another option: a sincere and spiritually attuned person who is able to truly sense the other person’s soul can speak forcefully and directly to it. That talk may not be so “nice.” It might sound harsh. But it’s worth it, because the recipient has a truer, more pristine part that is able to hear such words.

The Athenian scholars didn’t believe in a soul, so they were incredulous: If the peg doesn’t fit in the bottom brick, certainly it won’t fit higher up on the wall! But Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya knew the truth. He knew that even in instances when the peg doesn’t fit on the lower rung of the ladder, you can reach for the top rung and straight-talk the person back to their pure self.

So he took the peg, reached higher, and lo and behold, it fit!

Heaven vs. Earth

This explains our verse: When talking with someone on the conventional “earthly” level, gentle and kind “amirah” is the way to go. But if that doesn’t work, don’t give up. Dig within yourself and find your inner purity that is able to sense their pure soul and reach out on that level. This is a very different type of talk. It may be rhetoric that appeals forcefully to something out of reach, but the soul can hear it.

There will always be people in your life who meander from the straight and narrow. It could be your child, a good friend, or a former student. How wonderful it would be if a short, kind, and encouraging word was all it took to set them straight.

But it doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes people you love do some crazy stuff, and it’s difficult to come up with words that will appeal to them. It is at such times that you must dig within yourself (yes, yourself—not them!) to find their soul. When you’re able to see that pure and shining soul, you’ll come up with words of “dibur,” a truer and less varnished discourse that can pierce through the muck and hit home.

All it takes is belief. Belief that they possess a radiant soul. So go ahead and talk to it.6