Eikev: The Power of Words
In the Analects, Confucius’ definition of goodness starts with the “golden rule,” but he takes his concept further, famously stating that to be good, one must be “resolute and firm, simple and slow in speech.”
The Master said, ‘To be resolute and firm, simple and slow in speech, is to approach true goodness.’ (Analects 13.27 ). Commentator Wang Su said, ‘Gang [resolute] is to be without desire; yi [firm] is to be determined and daring; mu is to be simple; na is to be slow in speech. To be possessed of these four qualities is to approach true goodness.’ … ”
‘Simple and slow in speech’ becomes almost a refrain in the teachings of Confucius. For instance, in 12.3, he says, ‘The person of true goodness is restrained in speech.’
Throughout the text he repeatedly cautions his followers not to mistake eloquence for substance, as in 1.3: ‘The Master said – artful words and a pleasing countenance have little, indeed, to do with true goodness.’ … ”
Commentator Zhu Xi wants to understand why this is so. The answer for him is partly that restraint in speech indicates a general self-restraint, which, in turn, indicates that one’s original mind and heart, with its endowed true goodness, has been preserved and not won over by selfish desires. … For Zhu, words that are not simple but, rather, are ‘artful’ are evidence of ‘adorning oneself on the outside in an effort to please others, a matter of human desire having grown dissolute.’ ”
We confront the question of eloquence versus simplicity when we praise God. “One may only use Moshe’s words of praise to speak of God: “The Almighty, Who is Great, Powerful and Awesome.” (Megillah 18a) Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaGra insists that all prayer is based on these four Hebrew words: “HaKail, HaGadol, HaGibbor, V’HaNorah”.
There is danger in waxing too eloquent in praising One Who is Infinite. Our attempts to exhaust God’s praises imply that we can find words to describe this Infinite being.
We are limited in finding the proper words for the essential part of our prayers. If we must be so careful in our praise of God, should we not be as careful in all areas of our speech? We can use the discipline of speech in praise to train ourselves to speak so we may approach true goodness.
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