Dear Dr. Respler: I will never forget the following situation that happened to me in high school: Some of the boys picked on a boy who behaved inappropriately, causing the boy to feel terrible about himself. The rosh yeshiva, hearing about the situation, spoke to a few boys separately. I was one of those boys.
My rosh yeshiva made a hand motion to me, demonstrating a knife used to stab someone in the back. He kept telling me that my words were like a messar shnite (a knife that cuts). He said that when a person says harmful words, the person is basically stabbing someone in the back – an action that can cause lifetime damage.
The rosh yeshiva told me that I had a choice to make: either I abide by his disciplinary measure or I would have to leave the yeshiva for a while. He told me that since we finished learning early on Friday and went shopping for our Shabbos needs, I would have to shop for the boy I harmed. The intention was for me to befriend this boy, not just at the yeshiva but also on my personal time.
Today I am a married man with children. I will never forget this story, and to this day I admire my rosh yeshiva for taking such a tough stance regarding the poor middos that I displayed. He taught me to never hurt other people through what I now see as his brilliant lesson. I was forced to gain this young man’s friendship by serving him, thereby helping him in a respectful manner. This was my way of having to do teshuvah for my poor behavior. The way my rosh yeshiva dealt with my situation ultimately made me a better person.
I hope my story will help parents and people in chinuch take a strong stance with their children and students on the issue of bullying. This will help young people make amends for their wrongful acts. It will help repair the damage they’ve caused – in the same manner that my rosh yeshiva helped me.
I will forever be grateful to him. Anonymous
Dear Anonymous: I appreciate your letter, and your willingness to share your amazing story with my readers. I hope the rosh yeshiva’s lesson helps parents and educators deal more successfully with their children and students in similar circumstances. It is true that harmful words can damage people for life. Children and adults sometimes do not realize the damage they can cause with their words – verbalizations that can destroy a child’s self-esteem. I often tell people that a joke is only a joke if two people can laugh at it. If a person does something painful to someone else and other people laugh, but the person who is being humiliated is enduring deep anguish, the joke has no value. Rather, such a “joke” or prank is destructive, and is categorized as onas devarim.
As a teenager you probably did not realize that your behavior toward your classmate fell into this category.
The Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation’s excellent book, Positive Word Power: Building a better world with the words you speak, addresses all forms of onas devarim. It is a daily study guide to help people learn the practical halachos.
Onas devarim is verbal assault, and causes pain to another through the use of harsh, angry or insensitive words. The Torah, in several ways, prohibits this type of hurtful speech. The first is the commandment, “Lo sonei ish es amiso – You shall not aggrieve your fellow” (Vayikra 25:17). Rashi explains that this prohibition is directed at the words we use in our personal relationships. This act is totally prohibited, offering no allowance for inflicting even the slightest pain for the briefest moment, unless there is no other way to accomplish something important or constructive. Harsh words also violate this Torah mandate: “Ve’ahavta lereiacha kamocha – And you shall love your fellow as yourself” (Vayikra 19:18). Certainly people would not desire such treatment for themselves. Finally, the embarrassment onas devarim may cause violates the Torah’s unequivocal prohibition against shaming others. (This paragraph is from an edited version from the aforementioned book).
As a big fan of this book, I often recommend it to couples and individuals who I am treating. The purpose is to help them work on various relationships. Unfortunately, we all sometimes struggle with onas devarim.
As human beings we sometimes fail by using hurtful words to the people we love the most, namely family members. Your story about bullying in school should be a constant reminder that many schoolchildren struggle with this problem. I have published many articles on this topic in order to confront the bullying issue and to encourage principals, teachers, and parents to take a strong stand against this behavior. Your letter exemplified what a mechanech (educator) can do without causing pain to the other party. You deserve a big yasher koach for going against the grain and trying to better yourself by taking your rosh yeshiva’s advice.
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