Words have tremendous power. They can console and comfort yet also destroy and humiliate. Jewish texts are replete with references to the power of speech and the enormous responsibility people have in guarding their words. Our Sages say that anyone who insults another person has no share in the world to come, and that the sin is equivalent to the murder of the insulted person. They also teach us that the second Temple was destroyed because people were not careful with their relationships with people. Insulting and hurting people became the norm rather than the exception.
There is an old Yiddish saying that “a shmeis dergeit uber a vort derbleibt,” a physical strike one will eventually recover from, but a hurtful word will always remain. Words have the ability to linger and to be remembered. When people say a hurtful word to their spouse or their children it will never be totally forgotten and often will be brought up as a sore spot in their relationships.
Our Sages comment further that Almighty G-d created many guards to protect the human being against stimuli that would hurt their soul. Eyelids were created to block out harmful stimuli to the eyes, ear lobes may be placed into the ear to avoid hearing something undesirable. The power of speech, however, was given two guards, the teeth and the lips. It would seem that Almighty G-d wants to underscore the importance and the potentially dangerous power of speech. He thus placed two guards to emphasize the importance of guarding ones tongue from saying hurtful things. People must realize the enormous destructive potential of words-and yet its powerful potential for doing good and shaping the very history and future of humanity.
It is interesting to note that when a man and woman marry, before the words “Harei at mekudeshet li” (Thou are betrothed to me) are recited, the couple is forbidden to have any physical contact. Once these words however are said, this stringency is gone.
This is the power of our words!
This problem of speech control not only affects adults but also children in Day Schools and Yeshivot. Middle school students can be absolutely cruel to each other saying things that destroy the very worth of another child, while High School students, in an attempt to be accepted by their peers, do the same. This problem is exacerbated in a mixed environment. Since high school is a time when many students place their relationships with their peers above their academic achievement in school, studies have shown that in co-ed schools, girls are afraid to express their views in fear of not being accepted by the boys or their peers in the class. This follows from simply not answering in class to not defending another student who is the victim of taunting.
It is imperative that we teach our children the importance of guarding their speech. How we impart this message impacts directly on how they will behave when they become adults. They need to see adults modeling this self-control at all times.
Thus our first focus must be to sensitize the teaching staff to the importance of their speech. Teachers have a tendency to talk about parents and students in a venue that is not befitting a professional relationship. Often they denigrate students behind their backs assuming that no one hears them, when all the while a child is listening. Teachers, like parents, must be role models for their students. Their behavior has a profound impact upon their student’s behavior.
I remember our school dedicating one entire week to this subject. Every day, for one hour, the children were charged with the task of not speaking lashon harah, sharpening their senses on the importance of guarding ones tongue from speaking evil.
Just as a single word has the power to hurt or heal, that single lesson where students were made aware of the power they yield had a tremendous effect on the entire school. With these small steps, students learned sensitivity, teachers learned the proper forum for student discussion, and everyone became unspoken role models for each other. Indeed, for that week, hearing someone say, “Shhh! It’s lashon harah!” was a common occurrence in the halls of our school.
It is a lesson that should be taken beyond the four walls of a school, in shuls, community centers, offices, or any social network. To achieve this end would strengthen relationships and promote unity and good will amongst the Jewish people. Something we all desperately need.Rabbi Mordechai Weiss