How does one go about living a good life? The psalm reveals the secret to good living:
“מִי הָאִישׁ הֶחָפֵץ חַיִּים, אֹהֵב יָמִים לִרְאוֹת טוֹב? נְצֹר לְשׁוֹנְךָ מֵרָע, וּשְׂפָתֶיךָ מִדַּבֵּר מִרְמָה. סוּר מֵרָע וַעֲשֵׂה טוֹב; בַּקֵּשׁ שָׁלוֹם וְרָדְפֵהוּ.” (תהילים ל"ד:י"ג-ט"ו)
“Who is the person who desires life, who loves days to see good? Watch your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking guile. Turn away from evil and do good. Seek peace and pursue it.” (Psalm 34:13-15)
The recipe for good living, the psalmist teaches, lies in good speech. Why does speech play such an important role?
We all live in two realms. The first is our outer world — our needs and activities, as individuals and as members of society. The second is our inner world, a private realm of holiness and purity.
The psalm appears to be repetitive because it relates to both of these aspects of life.
“Who desires life?” This refers to our inner world, a realm of life itself, unrestrained by the framework of time. “Loving days to see good,” on the other hand, refers to our time-bound external world, our life of productive activities performed over the years. These actions are like the outer peel which protects the inner fruit. They are means to a goal; they acquire meaning as they lead towards their final objective.
Thus, the psalmist is speaking of our natural aspiration for good life on both levels: in our inner world of life itself, as well as a longevity of days that will enable us to extend our efforts to help others and benefit the world.
Just as we live in two realms, so, too, we have two forms of speech, one for each realm. One form of speech is directed inward, while the second is directed outward for interpersonal relations.
Our inner speech is employed in spiritual activities, such as prayer and Torah study.1 Our outer speech, on the other hand, is used for interpersonal communication to satisfy our various needs, both personal and social.
The two phrases, guarding our “tongue from evil” and “lips from speaking guile,” correspond to these two forms of speech. Our tongue and lips are the principal organs we use to produce sounds of language. The tongue, located inside the mouth, represents our lofty, inner speech. The lips, outside the mouth, indicate our practical, external speech.
We need to take care in both types of speech. We protect our inner life by watching over the tongue, the organ of inner speech. “Watch your tongue from evil.” Our inner speech must be protected from evil itself, by avoiding the expression of spiritually-damaging thoughts and concepts. For example, we find that the Torah prohibits even mentioning the names of idolatry (Ex. 23:13). When we guard our inner speech, our soul preserves its pristine purity, and we secure the inner strength needed to do acts of kindness and good. By guarding the tongue, we “avoid evil and [are free to] do good.”
The faculty of external speech, represented by the lips, is used for interpersonal relations. The psalmist cautions that we should guard our “lips from speaking guile.” If we do not properly supervise what comes out of our mouths, our social interactions will be sullied by guile and deception. But when we are careful with our communications with others, we will advance social harmony and peace. As the verse concludes, “seek peace and pursue it.”
(Adapted from Olat Re’iyah vol. II, pp. 65-66)
1 Optimally, Torah study should be verbalized. See Eiruvin 53b and Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 47:4.