“A healing tongue is a tree of lif;, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit” (Mishle 15, 4)
Rabeinu Bachaye explains that his verse teaches us that the highest form of cure is done by talking. Other cures, using medicines and treatments may cure illnesses in the body, but their cure is not certain. They may cure the patient, and they may not. And even if the patient is cured from his illness, the medicine will only bring him back to his previous state of health, but it will not actually increase his life force. Not so with speech. Rabeinu Bachaye asserts that proper, healing talk is a certain cure. Not only that, it can add to a person’s life force, actually improve his life.
The second half of the verse shows the dark side of the tongue: if it’s used perversely it will break the spirit. Just like cure can come from the tongue, so can injury and illness. If someone speaks degradingly, slanders, embarrasses someone, the words can break the spirit. And this injury can be more severe than a physical illness. For if the body gets sick, at least the spirit can sustain it. But if the spirit gets sick and broken, who will sustain it?
In today’s terms we call it mental illness, depression, anxiety, etc. In Rabeinu Bachaye’s terms, it leads to sin, bad beliefs, and broken spirit.
How can this broken spirit be cured? By speaking with someone that has a healing tongue. This is the real “Talking Cure”. Man has an advantage over the animals in that he can speak. And using this gift of speech can cure others of illness.
This was the secret behind how Avraham Avinu was able to bring people to the belief in God. The Midrash said that he had a special jewel hanging around his neck, and people would come to him and see the jewel and be cured of their illness. The cure happened because they heard the words coming out of Avraham’s throat where the jewel was, and the words were what cured them, and brought them close to the service of God.
This is the connection to our Parsha: “Moshe told the story to Yisro …” of all the miracles that God performed for the Jewish people. Yisro heard this and converted. And this is what is said at the beginning of the Parsha: “And Yisro heard …”