Sticks and stones will break your bones but words will never hurt you, goes an old saying. Abusive tongues probably coined it. The victims of those tongues would disagree. Broken bones heal but shattered self-esteem may never recover. Our sages, the guardians of the oppressed and defenseless, knew that words can kill.
God listens very attentively to the cries of the abused. Nothing moves God to action more than the tears of the insulted.
So when the great Rabbi Gamliel, the president of the Sanhedrin, excommunicated his brother-in-law, Rabbi Eliezer, for refusing to bow to the majority opinion in halachic debate, he paid for it dearly. “But I did not excommunicate him for my own honor,” pleaded Rabbi Gamliel, “I did it for God’s honor. I did it to prevent eternal disputes in Israel.”
Noble words indeed, but of little comfort to Rabbi Eliezer. So wounded was Rabbi Eliezer by this banishment, that his wife, the sister of Rabbi Gamliel, feared for her brother’s life. What would happen to her brother if God listened to the sobs of Rabbi Eliezer and punished Rabbi Gamliel? For years she forbade her husband to recite the words of the Tachanun prayer: “Depart from me all evildoers, for God has heard the sound of my weeping and will accept my prayer; let all my foes be shamed and utterly confounded.”
But the day came when her back was turned and Rabbi Eliezer said the Tachanun prayer and thought of his brother-in-law, who had excommunicated him. Moments later the terrible news was heard of Rabbi Gamliel’s sudden death.
In thirty-six different places the Torah warns us to be kind to people who have converted to Judaism. This is also true for the ba’al teshuvah, the person who has found his or her way back to the observance of God’s laws. It is forbidden to remind a convert or a ba’al teshuvah of his or her past. Such comments are hurtful and violate the Torah law of “You shall not abuse one another…since it is I who am God.”
It is only God who knows why troubles are visited on people. “You are sick because you sinned.” “You are burying your child because you are being punished.” These are presumptuous and lethal words. The friends of Job should never have uttered these words to him and we should never utter them to others. Rather, we should take our cue from God who silently heals the sick and cheers despondent hearts. Such callous words violate the laws of ona’at devarim, abusive speech.
“Kol hamalbin penei chavero berabim, ke’ilu shofech damim” – “Shaming one’s friend in public is like spilling his blood” – said Rav Nachman Bar Yitzchak. “For I have seen how the face of the shamed drains of its blood and turns white.”
Sometimes offensive words are so subtle, they seem harmless to bystanders. But they shatter the heart they are aimed at. They do not, however, go unrecognized by God, who reads hearts and responds to tears.