words have power

Words Matter

Last night, as the Republican debate began, a Facebook friend wrote that she was having her own internal debate about whether it was a responsible parental decision to allow her 12-year-old to watch. I don’t think she was worried about issues that might be too complicated for her son or that he might be bored – instead, she was worried that there might be a complete lack of civil discourse in the debate. And it turns out, she was right to worry.

When I was younger, nobody would have thought it was a bad idea to expose their tweens to political discussions and to let them see the election process play out in the debates. The most raunchy thing I remember was when someone asked Bill Clinton if he preferred “boxers or briefs”? Perhaps that crossed a line, but it seems to be nothing like what we are seeing in some of the recent debates.

Last night, a real low was when Trump felt the need to defend the size of his genitals. This was just one in a series of inappropriate remarks made in speeches, debates, and in the Twittersphere by various presidential candidates. While Trump’s words last night are the most recent example of this, the reality is that poor civil discourse crosses party lines and is not unique to this election. Nor is this just about politicians; news stories are filled with celebrities, athletes, and people of other kinds of fame spewing angry words in the wrong place and time.

READ: Donald Trump Cites Jewish Charity in Explanation for Not Disavowing KKK

And yet we know that words used inappropriately are hard to recover. Even when we apologize for angry words or inappropriate words, we cannot undo what we have said. I am reminded of a Jewish folktale in which a woman who loved to gossip went to her rabbi to say that people in town were avoiding her and didn’t want to hear her stories anymore. To show her that her words might be damaging, the rabbi asked the woman to bring a feather pillow. When she did, the rabbi went outside, tore it open, and let a gust of wind scatter the feathers. Then, the rabbi asked the woman to collect the feathers and when she could not succeed, the rabbi used it as a teachable moment to illustrate that taking back words is as difficult as taking back scattered feathers.

Indeed, words are powerful. Words liberate, they inspire, they heal, they hurt, they allow us to express our needs, they help us describe what we see, they connect us to others. Some words ring on for generations: “I have a dream…” “Four score and seven years ago…” “Ask not what your country can do for you…” “All men are created equal…” “Proclaim liberty throughout the land…”

READ: Gossip, Rumors and Lashon Hara (Evil Speech)

Those words of proclaiming liberty are not only on our nation’s Liberty Bell, but they are words that come from the Book of Leviticus in the Torah. Our ancestors who wrote the Bible knew the power of words. If we look at the creation stories in the Torah, though they borrow liberally from the stories of surrounding ancient cultures, a distinction is that the Torah emphasizes words. Whereas in the Babylonian myth, the great god Marduk creates the world by physically beating his enemy Tiamat and emerging victorious, the Genesis creation legend portrays God creating the world by words: “And God said…”

The Torah portion Balak reminds us that for our ancestors words were a weapon and also a way to bless. The Book of Proverbs notes that “death and life are in the power of the tongue.” The rabbis of the Talmud tell us that words used to humiliate a person can kill the spirit.

Words matter. While we cannot control the words that others spew, we can commit to using words with great intention and care ourselves.

Discover More

Pirkei Avot: Ethics of Our Fathers

This section of the Mishnah is one of the best-known and most cited of Jewish texts.

Song(s) of the Sea

Miriam's instinctive song of praise tells us something important about calling out to God.

Talmud is Not a Code of Law

In working out the ideas behind the statements of the rabbis, the Talmud serves not as a law code but as a work of Jewish legal theory.

Modern Israel at a Glance

An overview of the Jewish state and its many accomplishments and challenges.

Holocaust Survivors

As the number of Holocaust survivors declines every year, efforts have been made to preserve their testimonies.

What Do Jews Believe About Jesus?

How Judaism regards the man Christians revere as the messiah.

Converting to Judaism: How to Get Started

How to find an introductory Judaism class.

Israel’s War of Independence

Establishing a new nation and defending it