For many of us, the first pieces of wisdom which we learned were from nursery rhymes and schoolyard jingles. Sometimes these childish lessons had value, but more often they distorted a truer perspective on life.
Take, for example, this ditty: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never harm me.” The message is that we can ignore insults and need be concerned only with physical injury. The truth, however, is quite different.
Obviously, we want to protect ourselves from physical harm. But we cannot minimize the harmful effects of psychological trauma, whether it comes in the form of insults, embarrassment, or shame.
During the years I spent as a psychotherapist, I dealt with quite a few victims of domestic violence. I saw the effects of abuse on people, but I noticed that those who suffered from emotional abuse were less amenable to successful treatment than those who were physically battered.
The power of words to do damage is recognized by our Torah. That emotions can be grievously wounded, reputations ruined, and relationships damaged beyond repair through “mere words” is illustrated in biblical narratives, talmudic tales, and hasidic stories.
In this week’s portion, we are instructed to “remember what the Lord your God did unto Miriam, on the road out of Egypt,” referring to Miriam’s being punished by a leprous infection.
Earlier, at the end of Beha’alotecha, Numbers 12:1-16, we learn that Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of his Cushite wife, belittled Moses’ importance, and spoke condescendingly about him.
It seems that Miriam, the instigator, issued this critique privately; nevertheless, the Almighty was angry with her and punished her. (Ironically, she was healed only because of Moses’ prayerful intervention.)
Thus, our sages understand the command to remember Miriam as an injunction against speaking lashon hara, malicious gossip.
At the beginning of the last century, the sage and saint Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan of Radin became convinced that the central evil of modern times was the abuse of words, to the extent that he devoted a major work to lashon hara. That work is Chafetz Chaim, Desirous of Life after the verse in Psalms that reads, “Who is the person who desires life? Let him guard his tongue against speaking evil.”
Taking seriously the teachings of Chafetz Chaim is especially valuable today, because words have become even more powerful and potentially destructive than a rabbi living 100 years ago could imagine.
Nowadays, through the power of electronic instant communication, words can be sent to millions of people in microseconds of time. If these words are negative, they can harm individuals instantly, without the possibility of recourse or recall. The phenomenon of e-mails and Internet reports that damage individuals’ reputations without due process and without the possibility of defending themselves goes against our Jewish heritage and our democratic ideals.
Our tradition teaches that using words to offend another is akin to a snake’s venom. The venom kills, yet the snake has no benefit from its fiendish action. So, too, human beings may benefit from every other sin imaginable but gain nothing by harming others verbally — making lashon hara the least justifiable of sins.
It is now the season of teshuva, repentance, heralding the imminent High Holy Days. We must give thought to how we have offended others with words and deeds; we must try to control the way we use words and the words we use. None of us is innocent of lashon hara, and none of us is exempt from sincerely addressing this weakness.
The rabbinic dictum holds that the power of good exceeds the force of evil manifold. Thus, if words can cause harm, they have the infinitely greater ability to soothe and heal. The way to undo our sins of the negative use of language is to resolve to use language positively.
Imagine if e-mails were limited to complimentary statements, if blogs and websites were replete with stories of human accomplishment and altruism: It would be a happier world for sure and a world closer to that which the Almighty intended.