D’var Tefilah: The power of your words

When I was a child, I learned the saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” This is what we would say when someone said something mean or was teasing us. Perhaps saying this did help ease the pain when someone said something mean, but I have learned that this statement is just wrong. Words can really hurt. Words can do real damage.

Judaism’s most central prayer, the Amidah, ends with a silent meditation dating back to Talmudic times. It begins, “My God, keep my tongue from evil, my lips from lies. Help me ignore those who slander me. Let me be humble before all.” (Sim Shalom page 121). It is a daily reminder of how we should act and how we should respond when treated badly. It is instructive that first we ask God’s help to control our own tongues before we ask for help overcoming the pain of damage inflicted by other people’s words. How can we expect others to treat us well when we don’t guard our own speech?

It is so hard to watch what we say. It is tempting to use sarcasm, to raise oneself by putting down someone else or to share juicy tidbits about others. It is so easy to let loose with a cutting and witty line at the expense of others. There is a Jewish Proverb that states, “Let your ears hear what your mouth says.” Sometimes we talk so much we don’t even realize what we are saying. But we need to consider our words and how they might be received by others. It is impossible to be perfect, but we must constantly remind ourselves to be vigilant. That is why a prayer like this one is so valuable: it causes us to pause to really think about what we are doing. Prayer can help us set our priorities for each and every day.

Last week, I quoted Albus Dumbledore on the subject of love to great effect with our chanichim. Dumbledore also sheds great wisdom on the power of speech. “Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic. Capable of both inflicting injury, and remedying it.” It is important to realize that just as words can truly destroy someone, words can also build a person up. There are so many opportunities to cheer a person up, make them feel valued, and recognize their accomplishments. Although we are conditioned to be critical, if one looks, one can spend one’s day saying positively magical things to people. Perhaps a conscious goal of saying five nice things a day will help condition us to use words well. While meditating at the end of the Amidah, take the opportunity to think of five people to say something nice to today.

The last part of the prayer quoted above includes a request to be humble before all. Humility helps because it reminds us that many of the blessings we have were given to us rather than earned. No matter what our lives are like, there is always someone else dealing with harder challenges. I think empathy for others is a key part of helping us learn to speak kindly to others. My favorite novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, has Atticus teach us that lesson. “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” Often, before saying something mean, sarcastic or biting, if we could just stop and consider the other person and what they are going through, we might find the compassion to control our words.

I know that I still have work to do to embody the best of the value of using speech for good. I do find that concentrating on this value when I say the meditation at the end of the Amidah helps me stay focused on the goal. I hope this helps you too. Shabbat Shalom.

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