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Words of Wisdom

By Rabbi Efrat Zarren-Zohar

Friday, July 1st, 2016 / 25 Sivan 5776


Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.
This old English children's rhyme is perhaps consoling but sadly not true.
 
Words hurt and words do damage-sometimes more than sticks and stones, whose results often physically heal, whereas the scars from words can inflict psychological, social, emotional and spiritual harm that lasts a lifetime.
 
This week Parashat Shelach Lecha recounts how Moses sends a reconnaissance group, twelve "spies," on a fact-finding mission to Canaan, scouting out the nature of the terrain and the military capacities of its inhabitants. Upon their return, in BeMidbar (Numbers) Chapter 13, the scouts begin by reporting that the land is indeed abundant, "flowing with milk and honey." Then, they add a sadly human and fateful caveat: "But the people that dwell in the land are fierce, the cities are fortified and very great..." Caleb and Joshua try to counter with a more optimistic assessment but the other spies continued.
 
"And they spread an evil report of the land which they had spied to the children of Israel, saying: The land through which we have passed to scout is a land that devours its inhabitants; all the people that we saw in it are men of great stature....and we were like grasshoppers in our own sight, and so we were in their sight."
 
Moses had tasked the scouts simply with reporting the facts they observed. In their report, after describing the terrain in positive terms, they subtly deviate from that assignment --they insert their opinion by using the phrase efes ki-"but."
 
Despite the pleas of Caleb and Joshua, the only two scouts who express optimism, the people compound their mistake by accepting the assessment of the other ten scouts who described themselves as feeling "like grasshoppers" relative to the native peoples.  Facing long odds, the Israelites experience themselves as totally vulnerable and powerless, completely lacking trust in themselves or in G!D to help them succeed.
 
The Israelites' lack of bitachon/trust in themselves and the Holy One to "stay the course" and move forward, condemns them to wander in the wilderness for 40 years, one year for each of the 40 days of the scouts' original mission and drags their children through the wilderness with them.
 
Words matter. And the more powerful our voice - as a parent, boss, leader, politician-the more powerful the consequences of our words.
 
Before we speak, our tradition teaches us to ask ourselves these three questions:
  • Is it true?
  • Is it kind?
  • Is it necessary?
Most of us can remember somebody who hurt us with their words. A schoolteacher, a relative, a so-called friend. Their loosely-uttered statement sits in our memory from decades ago. And yet, despite this knowledge, we still treat our words lightly. As if our words cannot hurt. Or heal. Or create. Which of course, they can!
 
We try to have it both ways. To acknowledge we are made in the image of G!D with unlimited potential for good and evil, but then, we don't want to take responsibility for the power we have and choose to exercise.
 
If we stay conscious that we have a Divine power with our words - yes, THIS MEANS YOU AND ME AND EVERY HUMAN BEING!!! - then we are careful not to spread negative reports or doubt the power of our words as the spies did.
 
How will you use your words today?
How will you hold others to account for their evil reports?
 
(This commentary was adapted from Pitchei ha-Levavot (Heart-Openings): Torah Study Through a Middot Lensand Marcus J. Freed's Shabbat blogpost "Words")
 




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