A man once came across a teaching that said if you refrain from idle conversation for forty days you will receive divine inspiration. Thinking this to be a shortcut to God, he set his mind to the task with great diligence. Forty days passed, and not once did an idle word cross his lips. And yet, at the end of his struggle, no inspiration was granted him. Seeking all explanation, he traveled to the Baal Shem Tov.
After listening to the man’s story, the Baal Shem Tov asked, “Did you pray during those forty days?”
“What a question!” the man exclaimed. “Of course I prayed. Three times a day I prayed, just as we are commanded by God.”
“I see,” said the Baal Shem Tov. “And did you read any Tehillim (Psalms)? “
“Again, such a question! I am a Jew, and therefore I read Psalms every day.” And to emphasize his point the man rattled off the first verses of his favorite psalm. “Master,” he continued after the recitation, “can it be that the teaching is wrong? Can it be that after forty days of prayer and psalms and abstaining from idle conversation one does not receive divine inspiration?”
“No,” said the Baal Shem Tov. “The teaching is true. It was your practice that was faulty. I can tell from your recitation of the psalm that while you took care to uplift your conversations, you babbled your prayers. They became your idle speech. You purified your conversation with people and defiled your conversation with God. Your prayers themselves kept you from receiving inspiration from God.”
Forty days: According to Jewish tradition, forty days is the amount of time one needs to free oneself from unwanted habits and instill desired habits in their place.
Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760): Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer was the founder of Hasidism. He began his public teaching in 1734 and soon earned the title Baal Shem Tov, Master of the Good Name (of God). He was an authentic healer of hearts, minds, and souls.
You are what you say. The quality of your speech reflects the quality of your soul. Idle speech is thoughtless chatter, suggesting a scattered mind. If you wish to improve the latter, improve the former. But this effort must include all the words you use. Whether written, signed, spoken, or sung, a word has the power to heal or to harm. The problem with the fellow in our story is that he made a distinction between prayer and speech. It is all words, and no word should be spoken without full attention.
The Baal Shem Tov taught that a person is born with a fixed number of words to speak; when they are spoken, the person dies. Imagine that this is true for you. Every word you speak brings you closer to death. The next time you are about to utter a word, ask yourself whether this word is worth dying for.