How powerful words are! Rabbi Seymour J Cohen wrote: “Words can inspire, destroy, console us, entice us. Throughout history words promoted hatred, murder, even wars! How many politicians permanently had their careers ended by false rumors and innuendos!”
Each of us have experienced the power of words. The internet has made spreading rumors and gossip so easy—all we have to do is press “copy” or “forward” or “share” on our computers. Disagreements quickly become angry exchanges; people speak rudely to and about one another; and civil discourse is the new code word for “dial it down.”
Careful speech is an important Jewish ethical discipline. Our scholars have taught us that words have great power, teaching the importance of being vigilant in our usage of speech and to avoid others’ unethical speech, called in Hebrew “lashon harah,” the evil tongue.
Remember those childhood lessons we learned about words: If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all; think before you speak. What about this one: sticks and stones will break our bones but words will never harm us. We know that’s not true. Bones mend but hurtful words stay for a long time, sometimes forever.
Even innocent comments can cause harm to another person. We must especially exercise great care to avoid embarrassing someone.
Harmful words are often used intentionally. Talk show hosts and callers and politicians verbally attack anyone who has a different point of view. Store shoppers take out their frustrations on innocent clerks. Each of us has probably let slip a tirade from time to time.
While it’s easy to look at the behavior of others, it’s so much harder to judge ourselves. Almost always, we feel our responses are justified. We don’t think of it as gossiping; it’s just talking, keeping up, sharing information. When we belittle others, we rationalize that they deserve it. We tattle about others, we spread rumors, we rob others of their good name.
Why do we do it? Often we justify that it’s just conversation. We’re just being social. Maybe gossiping proves how much we know or that we have inside sources. Maybe we do it to be liked, sharing insider scoops. Gossiping and criticizing others is how we feel more powerful—putting others down to build up our own self esteem.
Well, if we can’t gossip what can we say to one another? Rabbi Jack Riemer has some suggestions. How about saying things that will get us more personally in touch with other people: How are you? What do you need? What can I do to help? What’s happening in your life? You did a great job. That looked difficult but you did it. Thank you. I appreciate what you did. You are special. And of course, I love you.
It is helpful to include this prayer in our daily practice, a prayer that Jews recite at every service: “Keep my speech from evil and my lips from deception.”
Rabbi Debbie Israel is Rabbi Emerita of Congregation Emeth Jewish Community and the Executive Director of Interfaith Activities in South County. All faith communities of South County are welcome to participate in the Religion column of the Morgan Hill Times and Gilroy Dispatch. To join the rotation of writers, clergy should contact [email protected].