MAIMONIDES, THE GREAT Jewish scholar, taught, “Silence is a protective fence for wisdom.”
Alan Morinis, says “The tongue is the pen of the heart, and the ability to be silent demonstrates a high level of self mastery” (Every Day, Holy Day).
As a parent and teacher of 37 years, I have seen the devastation that hurtful words can have.
I have never believed the saying “Words can never hurt me.” Whenever I hear “They’re only words,” I remember seeing the pain and tears that “only words” have caused.
I have personally witnessed how verbal abuse and hateful words can cause deep, unseen wounds that leave lifelong scars.
This is a timely issue during this contentious election. As the candidates discuss the character and past of their opponents, and some try to lay the blame on different groups for the nation’s problems, we seem to have become immune to blatant lies and ugly, demeaning words.
Hateful words are replacing calm discussions on how candidates differ on the issues. We find ourselves on opposing sides with our friends and families, and sadly, words may be said in the heat of the moment that will be difficult to take back.
A powerful Jewish story illustrates the lasting impact of our words.
A man approached his rabbi asking how he could make amends for some hurtful things he had said.
The rabbi handed him a feather pillow and instructed him to go to the balcony, rip open the pillow and shake the feathers out into the wind. The man found this a curious suggestion but he did as he was told. The rabbi then told him to go and collect all the feathers that had blown away.
“But that’s impossible!” the man exclaimed.
The rabbi agreed, saying that our words are like the scattered feathers: Once said, they are impossible to take back.
“L’Shon Hara” is the Hebrew phrase commonly translated as gossip, but its literal meaning is an “evil tongue.”
Maimonides said l’shon hara is equivalent to murder but more heinous because “it kills three people: the one who said it, the one who heard it, and the one about whom it was said” (Everyday Holiness, Morinis).
This is a powerful statement about how potent our words can be.
Even if what we say is true, but will hurt someone unnecessarily, it is still considered l’shon hara.
During our recent Yom Kippur services, Jews confessed several times to having sinned (missed the mark) in our 26 hours of prayers.
Many of those sins were about our speech. We collectively and repeatedly asked God for forgiveness for the sins involving acts of speech … for foul speech, fraud and falsehood, idle chatter, false oaths, slander, gossip and judging others.
In Judaism, how we use our words is taken very seriously, and we are admonished to always consider the impact our words may have on others. In the end, no matter how deep our differences and how difficult it may be at times, we must remember that we have all been created in the Divine Image.
If we treat each other with the knowledge that there is a holy spark within every soul, we will come closer to achieving tikun olam, the repair of our world.
Kein yehi ratzon … may it be God’s will. Shalom.
Issues of Faith is a rotating column by five religious leaders on the North Olympic Peninsula. Suzanne DeBey is a lay leader of the Port Angeles Jewish community.