In last week’s column I published letters from two women who wrote about the terrible ordeal from which many of our people suffer. In the Torah, such an affliction is called “onas devarim” – verbal abuse. While we are all familiar with the prohibitions regarding lashon hara (gossip), the prohibitions regarding onas devarim are less known. In fact, most people are not even aware of them. The following is my response:
First and foremost, yasher koach to you for bringing this very important but painful subject to the fore. There is a Yiddish saying, “Azoi vee es crystal zich, azoi Yiddish zich” – “As the non Jewish world goes, so goes the Jewish world.” There is no question that the cultural values and mores of our society impact upon us. In our world, we consider it “good-natured fun” to rank out someone. At universities we have hazing. We label people with nicknames and assail them with derogatory language; comedians make fun of others and everyone laughs. Should the victim of this abuse object, he or she is further assailed for lacking a sense of humor or not being a “good sport.”
Some students suffering from such abuse have actually been driven to suicide. In my work I have, sadly, encountered young people who fell through the cracks and abandoned Torah precisely because they were subjected to this abuse. Such incidents occur not only in schools but in summer camps as well.
Why are people so cavalier about onas devarim while at the same time recognizing, at least in theory, the dire consequences of lashon hara? While the devastating effects of lashon hara have had much exposure through shiurim and literature, there has been little focus on the deleterious effects of onas devarim. This is compounded by the ready acceptance in our society of such painful words as “fun.”
There is a well-known jingle American children learn at a tender age: “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me.” Our Jewish teachings, however, propound just the opposite. While we agree that sticks and stones can break bones, we are very much aware that abusive, hurtful language can leave lasting scars on the soul – scars that never heal, scars that can actually destroy individuals and families.
These abusive words can come in many shapes and forms – ridicule, innuendo, and even what people regard as good-natured teasing.
Then there are those who indulge in “fishing expeditions” very much like what the little girl in the first letter last week had to endure. Not only did she have to deal with the fact that her daddy’s business was no longer viable, she had to adjust to radical changes in her life – not the least of which was that she could no longer go to summer camp while watching her friends make their happy preparations. On top of that, she had to put up with the snide remarks of busybodies like the lady driving the carpool.
You don’t need a special education to realize that children whose families are suffering from the financial crisis are hurting and certainly do not need cruel questions like “How come you didn’t go to camp?” or “What did you do the whole day by yourself?” or “Is your mother working?” or “What is your father doing now?”
It is no wonder your little girl does not want to go in that lady’s car again.
Mind you, this abominable sin of onas devarim comes in many other guises. I know of singles who stopped going to shul because there were always some insensitive people lying in wait for them with statements like “It’s time you were married already.” And it’s not only strangers who are guilty of this but also well-intentioned friends and family members.
Some might argue that these people are trying to do their best to help singles find their mates. But this is not the way to do it. Those who are truly sincere can make a polite recommendation, but those who do not have any suggestions should remain silent rather than pour salt on an open wound.
But, someone is sure to object, how do we know whether they are still available if we don’t ask?
Well, there are ways of asking. Make the recommendation and if the young man or woman is busy, he or she will be delighted to tell you so. But under no circumstances should you barrage them with questions that highlight their single status.
There are other seemingly innocent questions people pose – for example, asking a childless couple what they’re waiting for. The couple may be yearning for a baby and it’s just not happening.
As I said, these are well-intentioned comments, but they pierce the heart like a knife. How much more so outright hurtful remarks like those described in last week’s letters – asking a mother whose child just went through a broken engagement for the gory details, or assailing a mother who lost a baby with insensitive questions, or staring at a special-needs child, thereby bringing tears to the eyes of the mother. I could mention a thousand and one other examples, but I think the reader gets the point.
There are more halachas regarding speech than any other commandment. Indeed, our laws are very stringent in this regard. Three times a day, at the conclusion of the Shemoneh Esrei, we beseech G-d to guard our tongues from speaking deceitfully. Every Jew should repeat to himself Psalm 34: “Who is the man who desires life, who loves days that are good? Guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceitfully.”
Children should be taught from an early age to be careful with their words and not to tease or make fun of anyone, for the tongue is a mighty weapon that has the power to kill.
Indeed, G-d created us in such a way that we are all protected from misusing our tongues. Just consider – every organ in the body is either external or internal. For example, the eyes and the nose are external, the heart and the kidneys are internal. The tongue, however, is both external and internal and is protected by two gates – the mouth and the teeth – teaching us that before we use it, we must close those gates and think long and hard, for once words escape our lips we can never take them back, even if we apologize profusely.
I hope these thoughts will reach the hearts of all my readers and we will all rethink the words that escape our lips.