Sticks and stones can break my bones… while words can crush one’s self-esteem and lead to depression, anxiety, and other mental and physical health challenges.
In truth, there shouldn’t be a “competition” between the different ways that people can hurt others. Physical, sexual, emotional, and verbal abuse are all damaging and morally reprehensible. Yet, as the original “sticks and stones” adage hints at, many people underestimate the damage that can be inflicted with “just” words.
In Parshat Mishpatim, the Torah delineates dozens of interpersonal commandments, reflecting the vigilance we must show vis-à-vis other people and their property. While both are extremely important, a third group of laws – on emotional sensitivity to others –often gets overlooked.
In a striking passage, G-d commands us to “not cause pain to any widow or orphan.” G-d then warns us: “If you cause him pain and he calls out to me, I will hear his outcry. My wrath will blaze and I shall kill you by the sword, and your wives will be widows and your children orphans” (Shemot 22:21-23).
According to the commentators, the pain being described in these verses includes physical and financial pain, as well as emotional distress (see Ralbag). The harsh punishment described reflects the seriousness and egregiousness of the crime. In the Torah, the orphan and the widow represent vulnerable people. They don’t have family to protect them. So G-d steps in and acts as their protectors.
The ramifications of this concept are broader than we may think. While the Torah specifies widows and orphans, Rashi, quoting the Mechilta, argues that it’s forbidden to oppress anybody. The Torah provides common examples of people who may be vulnerable and sensitive, but oppressing anyone is forbidden.
Additionally, based on the double language of “im anei te’aneh” (“if you cause him pain”), the Mechilta suggests that the prohibition is not only violated with a large affliction; even a small affliction is forbidden.
Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski points to a different part of Parshat Mishpatim to emphasize the same message. Both one who strikes his parent and one who curses his parent is punished with death (Shemot 21:15, 17). Yet, as Rashi points out, the punishment for the one who curses his parent is more severe than the punishment for one who strikes his parent.
Different explanations are given for why this would be so, but at a basic level, Rabbi Dr. Twerski argues that it demonstrates the severity of the potential damage of words. Perhaps, as Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchok Ruderman argues, because verbal abuse is more prevalent and generally overlooked as being problematic, the Torah makes the consequences more severe.
While Parshat Mishpatim exhorts us to stay away from any form of interpersonal damages, we should perhaps, because it’s often overlooked, place an added emphasis on being sensitive to the damage we can do with our words.