Shabbat Evening Service
From the desk of Rabbi David Lyon
Self-control. We have little problem with control; it’s the “self” that gets in the way. Taking a cue from a page of Talmud, we learn, “The eyes and ears are not always dependent on our will-power; but, our tongue is always dependent on our will” (Y. Kiddushin).
What we see and hear is generally external to us. We can close our eyes and recall a beautiful moment or recall a song we love to hear, but sights and sounds usually originate from somewhere else. Think about a vacation spot or a favorite song; they’re meaningful to us but we have little to do with them except for our appreciation of them. Likewise, we can be repelled by ugly sights and objectionable words. Even when we can’t avoid them, we might have to address them anyway. If we try, we can beautify something that at first offends our eyes, or improve the sound of something that begins as dissonant to us.
Different than our eyes or ears, our tongue is “always dependent on our will.” The tongue literally says so much about who we are by the words we speak and how we speak them. Our words aren’t dependent on anything external. Instead, we are completely responsible for our tongues, no matter how we wag them. Judaism considers as sacred the words that convey Torah values. It considers hearsay, rumors and gossip to be the equivalent of desecrating the entire Torah.
One of the greatest challenges to self-control is a child’s tantrum. A parent’s reaction is supposed to demonstrate a better way for the child. It begins with words carefully chosen and spoken. Loud doesn’t equal authority or power. Calm is a better way to model self-control. A calm parent can show a child how to navigate his or her way to a solution. And, though our tongues convey speech, it isn’t always necessary to speak. Silence can also bring a tantrum to a quick end and guide once misdirected energy towards more productive tasks, even for a toddler.
Nothing compares to the feelings we have when we’re in the company of those we love in our family and circle of friends. Sometimes we’re struck dumb by the overwhelming emotions we feel in their presence; but other times we seize the moment to share openly how much they mean to us. While such times are dear, they are sometimes juxtaposed by discord and it becomes difficult to hold back.
Self-control is critical if we want to find pleasure at all times. In times of joy, it’s important to express gratitude. In times of somebody else’s joy, it’s meaningful to tell them that you’re happy for them, too. But, in times of disappointment or even anger, it’s imperative that self-control guides our tongue to find words that help rather than hurt, resolve conflict rather than destroy relationships, and reflect well on Torah’s way for us rather than desecrate its potential for good and holiness.
Judaism recognizes that which is external to us, such as sights and sounds, and that which is internal to us, such as our words. Judaism doesn’t pretend that sin exists only outside us like some temptation we can’t bear without God’s help; rather Judaism claims for us that we’re capable of doing much good and as much evil. What we choose to do rests in us, in our eyes, our ears and mostly on our tongues. Self-control isn’t just a modern term for personal happiness; it’s a Torah value that supports and sustains us in the world we want to enjoy and with the people we want to love and love us.
As the week comes to a close and Shabbat begins, it’s a perfect time to draw in a deep breath and exhale with words of gratitude, hope and peace.