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The Definition of a Human Being

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

If a man makes a vow to the LORD or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips. (Numbers 30:3)

The Torah, at the beginning of the book of Genesis, describes how God created the first human being. God fashioned the body of the first human being from the earth and then blew into his nostrils a breath of life. The human then became a living being. Animals are also living beings, so, what is meant by the expression in the Torah: “And man became a living being”? Onkelos explains that this means that man became a speaking being. According to Onkelos, what distinguishes human beings from animals is coherent speech. Our sages, in defining the different level of human life force, refer to a human being as a medaber (a speaker). Why is this the lofty definition of human life?

Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner explains that a human being, by definition, is a combination of the Divine soul (the breath of life) and a physical body. The place where the two converge in the most powerful way is speech. Speech combines the use of the physical vocal cords, the tongue, etc., and the uniquely human spirit (related to the intellect and cognitive processes). The conflict between base physical drives of the body and the Divine soul’s spiritual aspirations, allows for a free-willed entity capable of free choice.

Our speech represents our very essence as human beings and, therefore, it behooves us to purify our speech. The Torah prohibits falsehood, slander, hurtful words, and implores us to keep our word. When we use our speech negatively, and especially when we break our word, we lose our humanity and descend into the animal kingdom. This is why we feel so deflated when we break our word and so empowered when we uphold our word.

In this time period leading up to Tisha B’Av, we mourn the destruction of the Temple. The Temple was destroyed by destructive speech. Let us rebuild the Temple by avoiding slander. Let us strengthen our commitment to keep our word and to share positive words of love and encouragement with others.