The Torah provides spiritual guidance to each individual in every epoch. This guidance is relevant whether we live in the Iron Age or the Cyberspace Age. Human nature, human problems and human potential remain the same. The Torah comes from G‑d, to obviate our problems and develop our potential to its highest level of possibility—and beyond.

Every word of Torah has this power, including the name of this week’s Torah reading.1 The name in Hebrew is a single word: Emor, or “Speak!”

“Speak!” seems to contrast with statements by the sages in favor of not speaking very muchOf course, this single word is actually part of a sentence, where it has meaning in context. But as the name of the entire portion, honored as such by many centuries of Jewish tradition, it also has a significance of its own. So we can ask: What is this word “Speak!” telling us to do? To speak about what? When and why should we speak?

The imperative statement “Speak!” seems to contrast with statements by the sages in favor of not speaking very much, such as “say little, but do much,” “the best thing for a person is silence,”2and so on.

The implication is that there is a certain kind of speech which is to be recommended wholeheartedly. What is that? The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, investigates this question by examining comments by various sages on the topic of speech.

There is an ancient Jewish idea that speech has an effect beyond the simple event in which A said something to B. The very fact that the words were pronounced has a certain significance.

A negative example of this is the case of malicious speech, slander, termed in Hebrew lashon hara. The Torah forbids speaking slander, and it is also wrong to listen to slander. In addition, the sages tell us that slander has a bad effect on the unfortunate person about whom it is uttered. Quite apart from the practical effect of the words, such as the defamation of character, the fact that they were said openly in some way concretizes their content.

By contrast, says the Rebbe, there is tremendous positive power in praise and in speaking well of people.3 The favorable words bring out the positive potential in the other person, even if at the time that one says those words he seems to exhibit only his bad aspect.

The wise man knows the power of speech, and uses it to the best advantage of othersThe sages tell us to “judge everyone for good,”4 which is generally understood to mean trying to find an excuse for their negative behavior. A further possibility is to find a way to praise the person. The spiritual effect is that this helps to enable the person’s good qualities—which are hidden deep within him—to come to the surface.

The Rebbe links this idea with the fact that Maimonides tells us that a wise person “speaks always in praise of others, and never speaks negatively about people.”5 The wise man knows the power of speech, and uses it to the best advantage of others. His positive words constantly encourage people, and spiritually have a good effect on them.

This is the kind of speech that the very name of our Torah reading is advising: speak praise of other people! It is good advice for parents, teachers, friends, spouses, neighbors—in fact, it is good advice for everyone.6