The Book of Bamidbar — "In the Desert" — begins with
Nodules and Noodling
“In the desert” (1:1)
For years I’ve struggled with my voice. As a youngster I had no problem belting out a song or a speech. My voice seemed to me like titanium. I once toured the East Coast speaking for an hour up to three times a day without a microphone, sometimes in the open-air, with a presentation that included singing, shouting and weeping, and I was left with the barest touch of vocal gravel on arising in the morning. Those days are over. I’d been to three doctors who fed cameras down my nose and throat and they all told me that I didn’t have nodules, but that I should give up all coffee, hot drinks, spicy food, coffee again, all milk products, coke, fizzy drinks, get at least 9 hours sleep, use Guafanesin to loosen the mucus on the vocal chords – in other words, to give up life as it is known on planet Earth.
Well, I tried one more specialist and he had this new-fangled machine with special computer imaging that can slow down the rapid movement of the vocal chords so you can see them opening and closing in extremely slow motion. And lo-and-behold! Hiding behind the major folds of my vocal chords he found some quite obvious and nasty nodules.
Prognosis: Voice training to try and undo a life-time of bad habits. (That’s going to be fun…) possible surgery, and, of most importance, resting my voice by speaking only when absolutely necessary.
The masters of the Mussar (ethical excellence) movement teach that we are all born with a “word-meter.” Along with a decreed length of the days of our lives, the amount of words we can speak we are also allotted. When the meter runs out, we either die of have a stroke…
Like all plentiful resources, we can easily mistake plenty for infinity. Nothing brought home to me how the cost of each and every word like that that doctor’s lecture to me. “The more you use your voice, the more you will use it up. Like an athlete, you can’t run as fast when you’re sixty as when you were twenty, and you can’t run as far and you get tire quicker. Your vocal chords are muscles and you just don’t have the same resilience.”
So, now before I open my mouth, I think to myself, “Do I really need to say this?” It’s been a salutary lesson.
This week we begin the fourth book of the Torah, Bamidbar, “In the desert.” Midbar can also be understood as mi-dibur. Dibur means “speech.” The desert is the quietest place in the world. The words — the dibur — of the Torah, were given to us in a place whose silence demands of us to reflect on our Divine power of speech and use that power as much as we can only to learn, to teach, to encourage and to ennoble.