I tried something new this past Yom Kippur – a speaking fast. In addition to not eating or directing, I made a commitment not to speak unless it was to discuss Torah ideas connected to the day.
It’s a little bit of a cheat to make this commitment on Yom Kippur. It’s like promising not to gossip between 2 and 3 a.m. Most of the holiday is spent at synagogue in prayer. The moments for conversation are rare, the temptations few. And I made the mistake of not printing up a card ahead of time explaining my goal so that some people thought I was just being rude to them – to have to apologize for my behavior on Yom Kippur seems like a new low!
But all the caveats aside, a speaking fast always teaches something. It is a real lesson in humility. We almost always have something to say. Frequently it’s so important that we are compelled to interrupt whoever is currently speaking to share our thoughts and wisdom. We know they must be appreciative. And doesn’t our wit and humor add so much to the conversation? It wouldn’t really flow without our contribution, would it?
That’s the sobering thing about a speaking fast. The conversation flows just fine without you. No one seems to miss my clever observations and deep insights. When I don’t interrupt, I actually end up learning something – facts as well as information about the speaker. I can actually deepen by friendship by keeping my mouth shut. And as for worrying about gossip or slander, that is certainly not a problem when you’re not saying anything at all.
And, in the interests of full disclosure, I have to reveal that my husband also undertook a speaking fast, removing a major source of temptation (he probably really appreciated a day where I didn’t share with him everything that was on my mind!).
Of course the reality is that just as we only abstain from food and drink for one day, so too with speaking. We need to speak to build those relationships we are now nurturing through our silence. We need to speak to accomplish at our jobs and our education and well, basically everything we do. We can’t be a good spouse, parent, child, employer, employee – you name it – without speech.
But from the fast, we can learn a more judicious use of words. We learn to think before we speak, to edit what’s extraneous and certainly what is potentially mean or hurtful or just plain wrong. We learn just a little self-control. Perhaps next time I won’t interrupt. Perhaps next time I’ll listen more carefully. Perhaps next time, I let someone else run the conversation and just sit back and enjoy.
If I incorporate only one of these lessons, it will have been worthwhile. I certainly hope I will but even if not, at least I had one day where I can be confident I didn’t misuse the gift of the power of speech.