Sticks and stones may break our bones but words will never hurt us…until they inspire someone to send pipe bombs to the homes and offices of one group of political leaders or open fire on another group as they’re gathering together to play baseball.
Sticks and stones may break our bones but words will never hurt us. It’s not a Jewish idea.
The Talmud teaches us that by verbally mistreating someone else, by embarrassing them in public, by calling them derogatory names, we’e doing physical harm to that person. In essence, what we’re doing is humiliating that person. “Anyone who humiliates another…it is as though he were spilling blood; after the humiliated person blushes, the red leaves his face and pallor comes in its place, which is tantamount to spilling his blood.” (Bava Metzia 58b-59a)
Because of this, Judaism makes it quite clear: anyone who verbally assaults another, s/he will not be a part of the World to Come. Instead, s/he will reside in Gehenna, the Jewish version of Hell.
And so the Torah tell us: “Do not aggrieve your fellow…” (Leviticus 25:17) We run the risk of doing just this, Judaism explains, by using our words to bring about pain, anger and embarrassment in others.
The great thirteenth century rabbi, Yonah Gerondi of Spain (1200-1263), taught that in addition to physically harming people, using our words to attack others encourages hatred among people. And once this hatred exists, we violate a fundamental biblical prohibition: “Do not hate your fellow in your heart.” (Leviticus 19:16) Once we hate each other, peace begins to deteriorate, the peace that is the reason that we exist today. So, as Rabbi Yonah taught, one who speaks poorly of others threatens the existence of the world. (Sha’arei Teshuvah 3:222)
Very powerful and not so powerful people are using awful words to attack others today. They’ve encouraged hatred among us and many of us do “hate” our fellows in our hearts. While we can defend and rationalize our “hatred,” we must realize that it’s part of the deterioration of our society; it’s part of the curse that’s threatening the civility and decency that’s essential to peace. While we can argue that we’re able to contain our hatred and not act out in dangerous ways, we must own that for some, holding the hate is just too much. As a result, we see that the words being thrown at others in the political arena do lead to actions that can maim and kill. These actions are inexcusable. They must be condemned and justice must be served. But all of us need to accept that these violent acts are the terrible consequence of the hatred that has permeated our society and we must respond to this hatred by:
- Insisting that all our national leaders, no matter what their political beliefs are, immediately cease and desist from verbally assaulting each other and set a tone that fosters civil discourse and respectful debate.
- Calling upon the media to do their part to set the tone by reporting the facts and avoiding the use of inflammatory rhetoric that might make some of us feel good but only promotes division.
- Realizing that we can’t simply rely upon others to set a civil tone. We’ve got to do our part, not by suppressing how we feel about important political issues, but by thinking through how the words we use to communicate our feelings affect the political climate in our homes, places of work, neighborhoods, community organizations, friendships and our social media posts/comments. Some of us want to rage. But, we have to ask ourselves, is this rage constructive? Is it fostering the rebuilding of a society that refuses to embrace hate? Can we tone down our words so that they can be heard by some who’ve been unwilling to listen? Can we refocus a bit – becoming more of a teacher and less of a preacher? And do we dare enter into dialogue with those who think somewhat differently, but, like us, are seeking a way to overcome the divide?
- Talking with our kids, grandkids and other children/teens in our lives about the fact that sticks and stones can break our bones and so can words.
Some suggest that the magical incantation “abracadabra,” recited by magicians as they amaze their audiences and witches as they cast their spells, has Jewish roots – coming from Aramaic, the vernacular used by ancient Jews: Avrah (I create) KaDavra (as I say). Halloween is not a Jewish holiday. But, as adults and children get their costumes ready this weekend for next week’s festivities, it’s the perfect time to reflect on the fact that our tradition teaches us that with our words, we have the ability to create. Avrah KaDavra – I create as I say. Judaism teaches us that we have the power to speak and bring about a better world. The question is, will we use this power?