Speech differs from thought in one dramatic way: Words travel from the personal, internal domain of the speaker into the external, public world outside of the speaker. A person’s thoughts exist only within his or her own mind, until they are translated into verbal communication and attain a separate existence.1

InSpeech is extremely powerful this way, speech is extremely powerful. Humans, unlike the rest of creation, are endowed with the ability to build goodness and kindness in the world through our words. We can speak words of love, of kindness, of friendship, of comfort, of joy. Many forms of speech are considered holy, like prayer, Torah reading and learning, blessings, words of consolation.

But due to the potent power of our words, they can also be used to create tremendous destruction.

How often have you responded angrily or impetuously, and then wished you could snatch your words back? How often have you had to apologize, when it would have been so much easier had you just kept quiet? On the other hand, how often have you bitten your lip instead of replying, and then realized that not answering saved you from a terrible scene?

Here are four quotes from our sages that teach us about the power of our words and the importance of being careful with them.

  • The Zohar teaches: “One who carefully guards himself against giving in to anger and avoids any arguments, merits that his home is compared to the Holy Temple.”2 To succeed in increasing the peace in our home, we need to speak calmly and kindly.
  • King Solomon says: “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”3
  • “Gentle words have more force than crescendos of indignation.”4 Even when we need to criticize, it is most effective if it is without anger.
  • Controlling our anger is beneficial on every plane. Not only does it ensure that our human relationships in this world will improve, but it guarantees a closer relationship to G‑d as the Talmud teaches “The entire world exists only in the merit of the person who restrains his words at the time of a quarrel.”5

It is a true test. Those who are capable of controlling their emotions, those who can be tempted and yet restrain themselves, are strong like the sun. Those who do not answer back, who are internally quiet in the midst of turmoil, who do not break down or become angry, will merit to reach a very high level of closeness to G‑d.

The act of “removing” their emotions will be mirrored in the future by G‑d, when He will remove the shields that are hiding Him from our world. When He reveals Himself to the world, those who controlled themselves will experience a greater degree of revelation.

The Art of Silence

While the surest path to a peaceful home is kindness, the second-most important characteristic needed to achieve peace in the home—indeed, to benefit any personal relationship—is to become proficient in the art of silence.

There are times when you may feel that you just cannot be kind to your spouse or your fellow. Well, if you can’t be kind, then be quiet! It has often been pointed out that the letters of the word “listen” can be rearranged to spell “silent”—a reminder that in order to do the first, one has to be the second.

Here are four quotes from our sages on the effectiveness of silence:

  • Our sages said, “Shimon [ben Gamliel] said, ‘All my days I have been raised among the sages and I have found nothing better for the body than silence; ... he who is profuse of words causes sin.’ ”6
  • The Talmud states: “Speech is worth one coin, but silence is worth two.”7 Our words should be even more precious to us than our coins, and we should be even more careful in how we use them.
  • The Talmud recommends that we pursue silence throughout our life: “What is man’s task in the world? To make himself silent.”8 In order to do so, we may need to act as if we are deaf. The goal is to control our reaction to certain statements, to behave as if we had not even heard them.
  • Psalms says, “Indeed, in silence speak righteousness; judge uprightly the sons of men.”9 How can one speak in silence? By thinking first and considering the significance of the words we are bringing into the world.

Often, our weakest point is reached through speech. When certain people say certainThe weakest point is reached through speech things to us, we are strongly tempted to defend ourselves by retorting in a similar, or usually worse, manner. Our ego is activated, and it becomes difficult to control our tongues.

Silence can create an entryway through that barrier of words. Through that entryway, we allow G‑d and love to enter our hearts. When we pause and choose to listen rather than to speak, with a humble demeanor and compassion in our eyes and body language, we show that we care what our partner has to say.

The Book of Prophets records a miraculous story about Elijah, the prophet and his encounter with the Holy Presence. Elijah fled to Mount Sinai when he felt that his efforts to bring the Jewish people back to G‑d were failing. There, G‑d spoke to him and told him to stand before Him on the mountain. As Elijah stands exposed on the mountaintop, a mighty wind passes by, followed by a violent earthquake and then a blazing fire. But “G‑d was not in the wind,” nor in the earthquake, nor in the fire. Finally, after all the bombastic events, came “a still, small voice.”10

And in that still small voice was G‑d’s presence.

The story seems to come to teach us that had Elijah spoken more quietly, the people would have listened. When we are silent, we can hear that voice of G‑d. When we choose to speak less, we can be heard more. One who has mastered the art of silence will know when to speak and when to keep quiet.