Early in rabbinical school, I received what I thought was an easy assignment: teach from the weekly Torah portion. The assignment taught me a great lesson about the power of words and anticipating how our words might be received.
I was assigned this week's Torah portion (Parshat Netzvim), which begins, Atem netzavim kulchem hayom ("You who are standing here today..."). Feeling passionately that these words call us to stand up for what's right, I spoke about standing shoulder to shoulder with others in leadership, advocating for a better world. I thought I was inspiring.
After I spoke, a colleague offered a sharp rebuke. She uses a wheelchair and she can't stand. How could I have been so insensitive as to use this metaphor for standing up in front of a paraplegic? And I'm someone who dedicates my secular career to caring for vulnerable people, many of them disabled. How could I have been so blind?
More than we often realize, it can be difficult to choose the right words when we speak. Words can cause great harm, even and especially when we don't intend harm.
That is why so much High Holiday liturgy focuses on sins caused by speech. In Hebrew these are known as lashon hara ("the evil tongue"). Lashon hara generally evokes speaking badly about another person, but in Judaism lashon hara means far more than that. A statement that causes harm, even if not derogatory, can be lashon hara. Recounting a story that causes embarrassment can be lashon hara. Even if the listener knows the subject matter, sharing painful information or a derogatory account can be lashon hara.
Why? Because Judaism cares about not only the intention and truth of words, but also the kindness of words measured by their impact on others. The speaker bears the primary responsibility to ensure that his or her words are kind. The stakes are high: in Jewish thought, lashon hara – embarrassing or hurting another with words, without sufficient cause – can be akin to murder. Another's self-respect, community standing and more can die because of another's wrongful words.
The upcoming Days of Awe urge us to be mindful about our words. In the days ahead, we'll speak many words – to ourselves, each other and God – in hopes of healing, improving our lives and fulfilling tradition. As we speak, let's treat speech like crossing a street: stop, look and listen before stepping forward. Stop to consider and measure your words before you speak. Look around and notice who is hearing what you have to say. Really see the essence of that person and anticipate what words you use that might trigger a negative reaction. And listen for cues to let you know how your words are being received. Is the listener urging you on or backing away?
We all are prone to say things that cause hurt. While we may try our best to stop, look and listen, we remain imperfect beings who do a lot of talking all day long. So the next element must be a preparedness to apologize. Even if we are uncertain as to the hurt or pain caused, a heartfelt apology does much to alleviate suffering and sadness. And so we stand as Jews for principles as personal as avoiding suffering caused by even innocent statements that may cause harm. With so much chatter and tweeting in the world today, our tradition teaches us to advocate the kindest use of words, each and every day.
However you stand – whether on your feet or in your heart – these principles are worth standing for, and worth living by.
R’ Evan J. Krame