Words have power. Words can affect us, even physically. I was in fourth grade and just finished presenting in class. My friend leaned over and whispered, “Great job, but your fly is open.” I remember how I felt in that moment. My stomach churned and sweat beaded on my face. I looked down. My fly was zipped. My friend leaned back over. “Just messing with you.” In that moment, I felt the terror. I embodied the embarrassment. And finally, after I calmed down, I was able to have a good laugh as well.
I recognize that this is a lighthearted way to convey the power of words. So, imagine what it would be like if we escalated this situation. What if my friend yelled out “Your fly is open” instead of whispering it? Imagine if it had not been my friend, but the teacher in the room who had done it — an authority figure poking fun instead of a friend. Now, imagine it wasn’t fourth grade, but rather high school, where the presence of girls in the room mattered much more to me than it did in fourth grade.
With each situation, the words carry more weight.
All of these examples above are still at the very surface of a deep dark ocean of the power of words. Some of us have felt the words of verbally abusive parents or spouses. Some of us have been catcalled in the dark of night on our way home from a party. The power of words is no joking matter.
The 19th-century rabbi and teacher, Rabbi Israel Salanter, offers us the following teaching: “If you were to say of your rabbi, that he does not have a good voice, and of your cantor that he is not a scholar — you are a gossip. But if you were to say of your rabbi that he is no scholar and of a cantor that he has no voice — you are a murderer.”
This may sound comical, or perhaps just very severe, but there is real wisdom in this. We carry extreme power in our words. Embarrassing another person — or damaging their reputation — especially in public — is no joking matter.
In his book, “A Guide to Jewish Practice, Volume 1 — Everyday Living,” my teacher, Rabbi David Teutsch, writes the following about this issue of halbanat panim — public embarrassment: “Judaism has traditionally regarded it as a serious offense. The blood brought to the cheeks by embarrassment is said to remind the embarrasser that causing embarrassment is tantamount to shedding blood (Talmud, Baba Metzia 58b). Certainly emotional injuries are as real as physical ones.”
If words have such immense power to make our stomachs churn with anxiety, make our bodies tense up in fear or make us cry, it must also mean that within our words exists the potential to inspire and uplift. There must exist the potential for blessing.
The beginning scene of this week’s portion is referenced in our morning liturgy. Baruch sh’amar v’haya ha’olam, “Blessed is the One who spoke and the world came to be.”
Do I believe in the historicity of the story that these words from our morning liturgy reference? That God spoke and, abracadabra, the world came into existence? No. I don’t believe that literally. But I do believe in a central truth of that story. That words have the power to create our reality? Absolutely.
Blessed is the One who spoke and the world came to be. Blessed are we, created in the divine image, who have the ability to bring about blessing and goodness through speech. PJC
Rabbi Jason Bonder is the assistant rabbi at Temple Emanuel of Tempe, Ariz.