“Words that Hurt, Words that Heal”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In parashat Matot, the first of this week’s two parashiot, we are immediately confronted with the exceptional power of words.

In Numbers 30:3, Moses speaks to the heads of the tribes of the Children of Israel, saying to them that this is the thing that G-d has commanded, “Eesh kee yee’dor neder la’Hashem, oh hee’shah’vah sh’voo’ah leh’sor ee’sar ahl nahf’sho, loh yah’chayl d’vah’roh, k’chol ha’yo’tzay me’peev ya’ah’seh,” If a man takes a vow to G-d, or swears an oath to establish a prohibition upon himself, he shall not desecrate his word; according to whatever comes from his mouth, shall he do.

The parasha continues to explain the laws of the Neder and Shevuah. A Neder is a voluntarily adopted prohibition, in which a person commits to abstain from performing a particular action, such as offering oranges as a sacrificial offering. A Shevuah, an oath, places oneself in a special relationship. For example, I swear that I will not eat oranges. In the Neder, the article is banned, in the Shevuah, the person himself is the object of the oath.

As we have indicated in the past (Matot 5768-2008), the Torah places extraordinary emphasis on proper speech. The Chofetz Chaim, who in the last century became the foremost advocate for proper speech, enumerates 31 Torah commandments that relate to proper and improper speech, 17 negative and 14 positive.

King Solomon, in Proverbs 18:21, states: “Mah’vet v’chaim b’yad lashon,” that both death and life are in the power of the tongue. The Midrash cites the well-known story of the hunter who almost lost his life because his tongue purposely uttered the wrong word. Only after all the other limbs of the hunter’s body acknowledged that the tongue was the most powerful of all the body’s limbs, was the word corrected and the hunter saved from execution. (Tazria 5760-2000)

As a member of the baby-boomer generation, I had been thoroughly convinced that my generation had finally reached the ultimate limits of wanton, harsh and destructive speech. We, who grew up with yellow journalism, screaming tabloid headlines, ubiquitous gossip magazines and sordid rumor-mongering newspaper columns, thought that evil speech couldn’t possibly escalate any further. Little did we realize that we would soon be faced with far more hateful and destructive rock and rap music lyrics, and an electronic octopus known as the Internet, which would enable evil speech to be disseminated and proliferated far more quickly and broadly than anyone ever imagined.

The Talmud declares (Arachin 15b) that one who speaks evil against another person violates the cardinal sins of the Torah and is considered as a murderer who spills blood. And yet, in our contemporary society, there is hardly an outcry at the unabated proliferation of evil and harmful speech.

In his erudite and inspiring volume, Words That Hurt, Words That Heal, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin underscores the power of words and their ability to damage and destroy lives.

Rabbi Telushkin relates that when he delivers a public lecture on the subject of evil speech, he often asks his audience whether they feel that they could abstain from such harmful speech for 24 hours. He relates that, invariably, the vast majority of people acknowledge honestly that they believe they could not make such a commitment.

Rabbi Telushkin then points out to the listeners that those who cannot refrain from alcohol or cigarette smoking for 24 hours are recognized as alcoholics and addicts to nicotine. Obviously, concludes Telushkin, much of our generation is addicted to evil speech and gossip.

Our rabbis teach (Arachin 15b) that evil speech kills three: the person who speaks evil, the person about whom it is spoken, and the person to whom the evil is told. The cover illustration of the Saturday Evening Post of March 1948, entitled The Gossips, by Norman Rockwell, drives home the impact of evil speech most cogently. The illustration consists of a series of about thirty talking heads. The first character is portrayed relating gossip to the second, the second to the third, and so on, until the twenty-ninth person relates the original gossip back to the originator, turning her into the object of the gossip. (See the illustration here)

But, isn’t referring to evil speech as “murder” really an exaggeration?

Emphasizing the potency of evil speech, Rabbi Telushkin notes that an old Jewish teaching compares the tongue to an arrow, rather than to a sword. He explains that if one unsheathes a sword to kill a person, the potential victim still has a brief opportunity to plead and beg for mercy. If he is successful, his life may then be saved. But, once an arrow is released, it cannot be returned, no matter how great the desire.

As an educator, I have always tried to be particularly sensitive to the implications of a teacher’s words. Only too often, I see the many victims–students, who have been scarred by a teacher’s hurtful words.

In her path-breaking book, “Off the Derech,” about Orthodox young people who have strayed from observance, Faranak Margolese underscores how many young Jews have been lost because of the hurtful words of a teacher.

We need no scientific studies to corroborate that claim. The truth is, unfortunately, self-evident. How ironic it is that a student may attend outstanding schools and be exposed to dozens of outstanding teachers, but if one single teacher is hurtful, that student may be turned off for life, and there is little or nothing that can be done to undo the damage. “How can that teacher, who is supposedly a G-d-fearing Jew, say that to me?” is often the response of the victim, who has now walked away from his or her Judaism.

What is true for teachers is true for us all. Recognizing the power of speech requires us to think of the impact that our words have on our audiences. Words can lift a person from the ash heap or relegate a person to the ash heap.

Our rabbis teach that the first step to doing good is to avoid doing evil. This is true with respect to words as well. The Psalmist states in Psalms 34:13-14, “Who is the person who desires life, who loves many days to see good? Guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking with guile.” The first step to achieving good, clearly, is to do no harm, because, when it comes to speaking evil, the harm that is done is very often irreparable.

May you be blessed.