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7 Nissan 5760 - April 12, 2000 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Opinion & Comment
A Talking Mouth: Man, the Dolphin and the Splitting of the Sea

by Rabbi Meir Yisraelovitch

The faculty of speech does not seem unique to humankind. Dolphins have a rather sophisticated language. And a whole host of other creatures, great and small, from the birds in the trees to the ants in the ground, have elaborate modes of communication that scientists are only beginning to learn about.

Yet, the Jewish Sages have for centuries taught that the human being is distinguished from other species precisely in this power of verbal expression. According to tradition, the physical world is divided into four strata of existence: the Mineral, the Vegetable, the Animal and -- the Speaker. In the Jewish view, speech is so unique to mankind that man is identified by this faculty.

Their typification of man as the Speaker certainly cannot be attributed to ancient man's ignorance of nonhuman language, for the Sages were not at all ignorant of it. The Midrash records that King Solomon knew the language of birds and animals. Why then, do the Sages insist on identifying man as the speaker, when speech does not seem to be at all unique to man?

One could argue that human speech is far superior. Dolphins may be highly intelligent mammals, but their system of clicks and whistles are hardly in the same league with English or French. When was the last time anybody named Flipper said "Give me liberty or give me death!" or "J'Accuse!"

The argument is less than satisfying, however, since it reduces the difference to a matter of degree rather than a matter of kind. And in the Jewish view, man is not just a more articulate version of something that can jump through hoops; he is a completely different -- and higher -- order of being.

It is a world-view which stands profoundly in opposition to prevailing notions of humanity's ranking in the ecological chain. Whereas the average Darwinian-influenced environmentalist may view man as an exceptionally intelligent, versatile and all-too-often destructive link in the chain of life; the Sages perceive him as the crown of Creation and its purpose, however much he may abuse his exalted position. Such a radical viewpoint needs explanation.

That explanation may be found in the approaching festival of Pesach. The word Pesach itself is layered with meaning. It refers to the sacrificial offering of the same name which Jews are commanded to partake of when the Temple stands in Jerusalem. It also refers to the miraculous way in which G-d skipped over the houses of the Jewish people in Egypt at the time of the climactic 10th plague, the Slaying of the First Born. The Sages reveal to us yet another, lesser known, meaning, however, as a word compounded from Peh and Sach -- a talking mouth. Evidently, the power of speech is somehow intrinsically bound up with the inner meaning of the festival. But how?

In order to answer that question, we first need to understand more deeply the genesis of man. Man consists essentially of two component parts: a soul and a physical body. The faculty of thought corresponds to the spiritual part, the soul; the capacity for action corresponds, of course, to the body.

When G-d created Man, and blew into him the breath of life, He conjoined those two parts. In the Targum Onkelos, man's creation is described as the creation of a "speaking spirit."

Speech is perceived not as just an increment of thought, nor as mere accompaniment to physical action; rather it is the product of that conjunction of the spiritual and the physical. It is the fine isthmus between the world of soul and the world of matter. The exercise of man's moral free will consists in the struggle to enable his spiritual component to prevail over the physical; for reason to dominate his animal drive. Thus, more than any other faculty, speech is identified with man's moral free will, because speech has its existence precisely there, in that interface between the higher and lower parts of man. The organs of speech -- lips, teeth and tongue -- are either servants to the soul or slaves to the selfish body.

On the seventh day of Pesach, we read the Song of the Sea, an expression of joyful triumph at the Splitting of the Red Sea which occurred seven days after the exodus from Egypt. The Torah records for all time that moment of exultation when the whole nation of Israel passed miraculously through the Sea, to be followed by the Egyptian hosts who plunged to their deaths after them.

Our Sages teach that even a humble maidservant saw at the sea on that day a vision that even great prophets never attained. For in this world, in which the wicked so often prosper and the righteous so often suffer, the triumph of right is a rare occurrence. It is really in the next world that things will be set right and a moral reckoning made. Only there should we really expect the wicked to receive their well-deserved punishments and the righteous their well- deserved reward. In the meantime, life is an ongoing test of faith in G-d's wisdom and justice.

At the Splitting of the Sea, however, even the most ordinary person was privileged to witness that rare event -- a whole nation redeemed in the fulfillment of a centuries-old Divine promise and, at the same time, the downfall of their persecutors.

The Sages discuss, too, the precision with which the Egyptians were judged. The most wicked suffered the longest and most painful death, their very bones breaking and torn apart; while the less wicked suffered less. Each according to his evil. The Jewish people witnessed not only their national salvation, but a salvation imbued with perfect justice. It was a revelatory moment in which the justice normally reserved for the next world was brought into this world of injustice. It was the revealed interface of the spiritual with the physical; of soul with substance.

And that is why the response to the event was song. For what is song but an inspired form of speech; and what is speech but an expression of that same conjoining of two opposite worlds, of the eternal with the temporal.

And now we have the answer to the question we started with. Man is distinguished from other creatures by his faculty of speech. This does not mean that he possesses language and others don't, for G-d has endowed other creatures with their own wonderful means of communicating. What it means is that Man's gift of speech is possessed of a moral dimension. And that is something not shared by any other creature, whether great or small.

This article was adapted from Pachad Yitzchok, Pesach, Ma'amar 15.

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