In their book Words Can Change Your Brain, Drs. Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman describe research they conducted on the harmful impact negative words have on our brains.
They used an fMRI scanner to record the brain activity of research participants while the participants were being exposed to negative words like “No!” Stress-producing hormones and neurotransmitters were released by the amygdale – a small part of the brain – interrupting regular brain activities that assist with logical thinking and effective communication.
Even a single negative word or phrase, when focused on for extended periods of time, can damage key brain structures that regulate memory and emotion. Verbalizing the negativity causes even more stress chemicals to be released, in both the speaker and the listener. Words and speech can change the structures in our brains, changing how we perceive and relate to ourselves and the world.
Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin points out that the three haftorot read during the three weeks preceding Tisha B’Av each begin with related, but different words. The first week begins with “Divrei,” the second with “Shimu,” and the last with “Chazon.”
These three words correspond to dibbur, shemiyah, and re’iya – speech, hearing, and seeing. The message and task of the first week is recognizing the importance of speech and improving how we utilize it in our daily lives.
Famously, Onkelos translates “nefesh chaya” – which the Torah says G-d blew into man’s nostrils – as “ruach memamela,” a speaking spirit. Speech defines and distinguishes humans from other creatures. The Maharal explains that speech acts as the synthesis of our body and soul. That’s why, Rabbi Akiva Tatz writes, our voice generates in the neck, at the junction of the head, representing the soul, and the rest of the body.
The centrality of speech to our spiritual lives is alluded to in Parshat Pinchas and the surrounding parshiyot. In Parshat Balak, we read about Bilaam’s attempt to curse the Jewish people with words. While that particular endeavor fails, he tries to lead the Jews to the licentious actions described at the end of Parshat Balak, which in turn leads to Pinchas’s act of zealotry, the aftermath of which is presented in this week’s parshah.
As a punishment for his actions, we are told that Bilaam was killed “be’charev” – with a sword. Rashi comments that Bilaam originally came to provoke Bnei Yisrael using our specialty, speech. Bnei Yisrael worship G-d through prayer and Bilaam tried to use the power of negative speech – a curse – to destroy them. As a consequence, Bilaam is killed by Bnei Yisrael, not with their usual weapon of speech, but with the sword.
Toward the end of Parshat Pinchas, we are presented with details of various sacrifices to be brought in the Mishkan. One important function of the sacrifices was providing atonement for sins. In a fascinating passage, the Talmud presents a dialogue between Avraham and G-d, where Avraham is concerned with what would happen if the Jewish people sin.
G-d reassures him that they will not be destroyed like the generation of the flood because they have sacrifices to provide atonement. Avraham retorts, “That is well and good when they have a Temple to bring the sacrifices, but what about afterwards?” G-d answers that learning and reciting the passages related to the sacrifices will provide the requisite atonement.
While our words have the power to change our brains, their significance doesn’t stop there. Our recitation of Torah provides atonement. Our prayers make us the Jewish people. Our speech defines us as human beings.
As we approach the first of the three weeks, let us work on improving our speech and utilizing our words for meaningful purposes.