D’var Torah: Devarim – The Power of Words
“Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.” That is what we used to shout back at someone who called us names or said mean things when we were children. Looking back, this claim rings completely untrue. Mean words can hurt tremendously. In fact, words are often quite powerful.
Judaism regularly emphasizes the potency of words. The Torah begins with God using words to create. Every morning, as we begin our tefilot, we recite the Baruch She’emar prayer – “Blessed be the one who spoke and there was the world.” The world wasn’t created through violent action or by accident, but through words. Whole worlds are created by words. Similarly, the Torah concludes with a whole book devoted to words. This week we start the book of Devarim, which records the vital stories and messages that Moshe spoke to B’nai Israel just before they entered the land of Israel.
In every way and every day we have the power to use words for creative or destructive purposes. Do we use words to tell someone they did something great? Do we use words to tease? Do we use words to support someone who is sad? Do we use words to start a quarrel between friends?
One type of word use that I find very dangerous – at camp and elsewhere – reflects the urge to tell someone something that we just heard from someone else. We may sow dispute between people when we run to pass on something someone else said. For example, when your friend Sally vents to you about Sam, instead of just listening you feel it is your duty to pass it on. You run to Sam and say, “Did you know that Sally said that she thinks you are bossy?” We think we are doing good by telling this “truth” to someone. In fact, we are just spreading pain. Often it is better to keep it to yourself. Maybe Sally was just upset in the moment and her complaint should just stop with you.
Making wise word choices is hard. That is why we end the Amidah with the silent meditation at the end of the prayer “Elohai n’tzor l’shoni” – “My God, keep my tongue from evil, my lips from lies. Help me ignore those who slander me. Let me be humble before all.” One of the great benefits of prayer is that we can use it to center and focus ourselves. Every day I use the end of the Amidah to think about how I want to talk to and about people. It is very hard to be perfect, but it is always possible to do better.
We are headed into Tisha B’Av, which commemorates the destruction of both Temples in ancient Israel. Our sages teach us that the Second Temple was destroyed because of “Sinat Hinam” – baseless hatred between Jews. Much of this hatred was spread by how people talked about each other and how they used words to tear each other down. As we head into the last Shabbat of the first session, let’s use the last paragraph of the Amidah to remind ourselves to use words to create good, to avoid spreading mean reports and to build others up. Shabbat Shalom.