The devastating power of words

The devastating power of words

The beginning of this week’s double parasha deals with the laws of vows — making them and, more importantly, the obligation to keep one’s word. That is, the words we speak, whether they are formal vows and oaths or promises we make in everyday conversation, are powerful and we shouldn’t treat them as if they were trivial.

Think about it — at the conclusion of every Amidah of the year we recite the prayer of Mar, son of Ravina, which begins, “My God, keep my tongue from evil, my lips from lies….” Three times a day we address a personal prayer to God. We don’t say, “Help me not to murder today, help me not to steal,” because for most of us that’s not a daily struggle. But being careful with words — that we need help with.

There’s a well-known story of a man — let’s call him Yussel — who lived in a small town many years ago. Yussel definitely did not like the town’s rabbi, so almost every day he found something negative to say about him. If the rabbi stayed to chat with the men of the community after the morning minyan, Yussel would say, “That’s some rabbi we have. He’s supposed to be a Torah scholar, but he spends his time schmoozing with uneducated workmen.” And if the rabbi returned to his study right after minyan, Yussel would say, “That’s some rabbi we have. He thinks he’s too good to spend a few minutes with the people who pay his salary.” No matter what the rabbi said or did, Yussel found fault with it.

One year, as Yom Kippur approached, Yussel realized that his behavior toward the rabbi was, in fact, a sin, and he went to see him to ask for forgiveness. “Rabbi,” he said, “I’m the one who has been spreading nasty stories about you. I realize what I have done is wrong, and I hope you will forgive me.”

“Of course I will forgive you,” said the rabbi, “But first you need to do something for me.”

“Anything, Rabbi,” said Yussel.

The rabbi said, “Go home, take the fattest pillow from your bed, go up to the roof, and cut open the pillow and give it a good shake.”

Yussel thought that was an odd request, but he went home and did what the rabbi asked. The feathers flew everywhere, into trees, into mud puddles, into wagons passing through, and more. Yussel hurried back to the rabbi and said, “I did as you asked. Will you forgive me now?”

“There’s just one more little thing,” said the rabbi. “First you have to pick up all the feathers.”

Words are powerful, and once they have been spoken you can’t take them back. It doesn’t matter if you didn’t really mean them. Every word we speak has an effect.

Many, if not most, families have a story about members who no longer speak to each other, who refuse to share a table at a wedding or bar mitzvah because of a few thoughtless words spoken years, even decades ago. That’s sad, and it doesn’t have to continue. It may not be possible to forget the words that hurt so badly or to heal the break in the relationship as if it had never happened, but it is possible to forgive and to start over. It starts with words — “I was wrong and I’m sorry.”

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