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Subliminal Speech

Faigy Peritzman

The deeper the recognition, the deeper the effect

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

"Even if we were all wise sages, even if we were all understanding people… we would still be obligated to tell over the story of the Exodus from Egypt.”

(Haggadah shel Pesach)

 

The Vilna Gaon attributes a unique characteristic to each month of the year. Nissan’s trait is sichah, speech. Speech is a common theme that runs throughout Pesach. The name Pharaoh stems from the words “peh ra, evil mouth.” On Pesach, when we were redeemed from Egypt, we were simultaneously redeemed from the trait of evil speech that the Egyptians personified.

We then take this a step further with the actual name of the chag, which comes from the root “peh sach, a mouth that speaks.” With our exodus from Egypt, we triumphed over the attribute of evil speech and gained the power of spiritual speech, which we utilize in retelling the story of our Yetzias Mitzrayim. 

In Bereishis (2:7) it says: “And man became a living spirit.” Targum translates this to mean “a talking spirit.” The Jewish People exemplify mankind’s unique attribute of speech through the mitzvah of learning Torah, which is done through speaking, as it says in Devarim (6:7): “And you shall speak in it.” (Rav Itamar Schwartz, Bilvavi)

A friend of mine broke her femur and was in rehab for several weeks. Hoping to break the monotony of her bed rest, I’d stop by the rehab center every time I was in Yerushalayim. After several visits, I became friendly with the other patients, who were always happy to have company.

There was one old man who haunted the lobby, apparently a fixture there. He’d pace back and forth in front of the bank of elevators, muttering to himself. Although I tried to greet him on several occasions, he never acknowledged my presence, continuing to mumble long strings of seemingly incomprehensible words.

One week, I drew a bit closer to listen to this man’s soliloquy. Instead of the mumble-jumble I’d been expecting, he was actually delivering a long discourse on the parshah of the week! He paced as he repeated a whole derashah, complete with witticisms and rhetorical questions.

Who was this man? A Rabbi Frand fan? Eliyahu Hanavi coming to inspire my next column? My curiosity was piqued, and I approached a nurse to inquire about this mystery maggid.

We find several terms for speech in the Torah: Amirah — soft speech, dibbur — harsh speech, and sichah — conversation.

The Gemara (Avodah Zarah 7b) states that the essence of sichah is expressed through prayer. Sichah also stems from the word shach, to bend. The Gemara points out that shechitah is performed on animals on the neck, the part of the body that bends. Shiach — a burrow in the ground, a low place — also contains the term shach. Thus, sichah, conversation, is about bending oneself and being subservient to the One Above.

Sichah does not come from the intellect, but from the heart. And words that come from the heart enter the heart. The Exodus from Egypt did not take place in the merit of Torah learning, for the Torah was not yet given. It was achieved entirely through prayer. Every year, when the month of Nissan returns, this power of sichah/tefillah is prevalent. 

“He used to be a rabbi of a large beit knesset,” the nurse replied. “Unfortunately, he suffers from severe dementia, not recognizing friends and family, but he still remembers every speech he ever gave from the pulpit.”

This disclosure made me incredibly sad. Where once this man’s words had impact, now they were viewed as senseless babbling. Yet within the sadness, I gleaned tremendous inspiration. This man was incapable of remembering his own family. Yet look what power the words of Torah had over his subconscious memory!

The mitzvah of sippur Yetzias Mitzrayim isn’t accomplished through brain power. That’s why the Haggadah states that it doesn’t matter how smart one is, he still must discuss our Exodus. Unlike learning Torah, which challenges the intellect, this mitzvah utilizes simple speech, requiring us to tell a story. Its power comes from recognizing speech’s connection to our souls. The deeper the recognition, the deeper the effect the mitzvah will have on our lives.

I couldn’t shake the image of this rabbi from my mind. He made me wonder. What type of speech was my subconscious secretly hoarding? Where’s your homework?... Please clean up your mess… How many times have I told you…?

Or perhaps I could hope that my soul was saturated with the soft Shemas I recited at bedtime, the songs I sang with my family on Yom Tov, and the sweet words of encouragement I spoke to my husband and children, eternally inspiring them, as this man’s speeches were still inspiring me.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 639)

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