The power of human speech made the headlines once again this month — even before the WikiLeak shocks had worn off — with two gaffes by prominent American politicians. One of Mitt Romney’s top campaign strategists was asked if Romney would not be permanently locked into certain positions because of his primary promises. He replied with the unfortunate “Etch-a Sketch” analogy: You shake the picture a bit and start from the beginning. Which of course led the anti-Romneys to charge that this proves that Romney has no convictions and no principles. He is just a politician who blows with the wind — or the granules of the “sketch.”
A few days later, talking into a microphone he did not know was open, President Obama is heard assuring Russian President Medvedev that after his election he will have more flexibility in the area of missile negotiations. Which of course led the anti-Obamas to charge that Obama was more than willing to give in to Russian demands, but can only afford to do so after he is reelected, not now. (This followed an earlier embarrassing open-mike nasty putdown of Binyamin Netanyahu by both Obama and President Sarkozy of France.)
The ensuing outraged reactions on all sides brings to mind the creation of Adam. When God creates him, He breathes into him the “breath of life “ (Genesis 2:7), which Targum Onkelos famously translates it as ruach memallela” a breath of speech,” that which differentiates man from the beasts — the power to talk. And it is truly a power, fraught with possibilities for good or ill. Through his words, man can sustain or destroy, heal or wound, express kindness or cruelty. No wonder King Solomon declares in Proverbs 18:21: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” Because of this, the Torah is replete with warnings about the use and misuse of human speech: false vows and promises; gossip, blasphemy, obscenity, and more. Human speech is so charged that it requires constant monitoring.
The truth is that even without open-mike problems, we are beginning to sense that the words that emanate from our mouths do not simply evaporate in the atmosphere. Since speech is a gift from the Eternal One, it is not unreasonable to suggest that speech itself must contain some form of eternity. Somewhere in space, the words live on, in another realm and in another way. One gleans an inkling of this from a very common earthly illustration — from the world of computers. In word processing, nothing is ever really deleted or erased forever. Everything one ever wrote on his computer can ultimately be skimmed off the hard drive and recovered. Whatever one writes digitally is never fully lost; it remains imprinted even after it is deleted. (Which is both ominous and comforting at the same time.)
The unguarded comments of politicians constitute a morality tale. Whether they reveal or do not reveal their true inner thoughts and calculations no one can know. But one thought keeps bobbing to the surface because of these gaffes. Namely, we all realize that this is not a perfect world. But one way to make it less imperfect is to imagine that there is an open mike nearby whenever we open our mouths, and to behave as if others were listening in. Yes, it might inhibit us a bit, but why would that be a bad thing? After all is said and done, such self-imposed verbal discipline might be a net gain for us personally, for our marriages, our friendships, and for our relationships in general.
Truth to tell, there is no need to imagine that there is an open mike nearby. For there exists a real one in fact, one that is with us wherever we go. See the Mishnah in Avos 2:1, which offers the formula for avoiding sin: “… consider that there is always with you a watchful Eye, a listening Ear, and that all your deeds are recorded in a Book.” “A listening ear ….”: were the Sages possibly referring to the perpetual open mike that surrounds us? Hmm.
This article first appeared in Mishpacha.