Yom Kippur 5780 Words That Hurt, Words That Heal
I recently heard about an usher for the high holy days. He greeted an older elderly woman who was visiting. He gave her a prayer book and walked her into the sanctuary. He asked her very politely, “Where would you like to sit?”
She answered: “The front row, please.”
“You sure you want to do that?” the usher asked. “The rabbi is really boring.”
The woman said, “Do you happen to know who I am?” “No,” he said.
“I’m the rabbis mother,” she replied indignantly.
“Do you know who I am?” he asked.
No,” she said So he said, “Good.”
We have all had moments like this—we insult someone’s relative, spouse, or friend. We say something unkind. We say something thoughtless and then we wish we could take it back.
On Yom Kippur we come to synagogue to confess our “sins” —our transgressions and our mistakes. Yet most of us have not committed murder, armed robbery or other wrongdoings that seem overly significant. While some of us may have larger transgressions that weigh heavily upon us this year or even smaller ones in which we harbor guilt, most of us think of ourselves as good people—we try our best and aim to do the right thing.
Yet there are some smaller wrongs that we commit on a regular basis that we may not even realize we have committed. Included in our prayer known as the “al chet” –a confession of our communal sins that we read in the Machzor, the High Holy Day Prayer Book, is the line:
“al chet shchatanu lefanecha bircihlut” “ the harm(sin) we have caused in Your world through gossip and rumors.”
This seems to like a less serious transgression than the other’s it is grouped with such as “taking bribes and dishonesty in business.” Yet it is probably the misdeed that most of us practice more than any other.
Judaism has many names for gossip. Jewish law defines two major categories of forbidden speech. One is called Lashan Hara and the other, rekhilutut, the verb used in the al chet. Literally, lashon hara means “the wicked tongue; and rekhilut can be defined as telling tales. In Jewish legal usage, lashon hara refers to things forbidden to say, while rekhilut refers to disseminating negative information to others.
We all know that gossip- speaking about people behind their backs is wrong but yet we all do it, and most of us do it on a regular basis.
We let an unfiltered comment slip out, we say something disparaging about an acquaintance or a co-worker or we share information that was not ours to share. Mostly we gossip because it’s fun, it gives us something to talk about, it helps us connect to others (even at another’s peril) and even makes us feel important.
And other times we have valid reasons to share information—to protect someone, to prevent an undeserving person from being granted a prestigious position, or to right a wrong—but let’s be honest—how much of what we share is necessary information?
In his new book, “Words that Hurt, Words that Heal,” Rabbi Joseph Telushkin offers three reasons why people speak ABOUT others
- To raise our status by lowering other’s status
- To appear “in the know”
- To exact revenge against people who have wronged us, but we are too timid to confront: If we complain to the offending party, we risk being hurt again by his or her response.
Sometimes we share something seemingly innocuous, perhaps a piece of not yet disclosed information, or factual details about another person—and think nothing of it—but we don’t know what the ripple effect of sharing that information will be.
A woman repeated a story (some gossip) about a neighbor. Within a few days everyone in the community knew the story. The person she talked about heard what had been said about her and she was very upset. Later, the woman who had spread the story learned that it was actually not true. She was very sorry and went to a wise rabbi and asked what she could do to repair the damage.
After giving this some thought, the rabbi said to her, “Go home, get one of your feather pillows, and bring it back to me.” Surprised by the rabbi’s response, the woman followed her advice and went home to get a feather pillow and brought it to the rabbi.
“Now,” said the rabbi, “cut open the pillow and pull out all the feathers.” Confused, the woman did what she was told to do.
After a few minutes, the rabbi said, “Ok, now, I want you to find every one of the feathers and put them back into the pillow.”
“That’s impossible,” said the woman, almost in tears. “The window is open, and the wind has scattered them all over the room and blown many feathers outside. I can’t possibly find them all.”
“Yes,” said the rabbi. “And that is what happens when you gossip or tell a story about someone else. Once you talk about someone, the words fly from one person’s mouth to another, just like these feathers flew in the wind. Once you say them, you can never take them back.”
Jewish tradition teaches:
One who speaks against another person in anger is like one who shoots an arrow. An arrow aimed at someone cannot be recalled, no matter how much we may regret having shot it.
Numbers Rabba says “Gossip kills three people at once: the one who speaks it, the one who listens, and the one about whom they speak.” (Numbers Rabbah 19:2).
We just heard some juicy new gossip…and we are dying to share it but what if that person did not want the information shared. And in turn, you have now given that temptation to another person. The person who you shared this nugget of information with naturally wants to unload this juicy tidbit with another person. And the cycle continues like feathers blowing in the wind.
This information also alters that person’s perception of the person of whom you have shared….or may even cause the listener to go directly to the source of the gossip with a reaction—to ask if it’s true? To offer a comment: A sympathetic expression or even a well-meaning congratulation.
And that comes back to bite the originally disseminator of information, break the trust of everyone involved, and make people aware that they are being discussed behind their backs.
And if we are hearing someone else’s secret—we must wonder—are they is that person sharing our secrets as well? A vicious cycle is born—we lose our trust in confiding in others—and then in turn they lose their trust in confiding in us—and the distance remains. When trust is broken, it is extremely difficult to build back.
Rabbi Telushkin further explains, “Many otherwise good people use words irresponsibly and cruelly in part because they regard the injuries inflicted by words as intangible, and therefore minimize the damage words can inflict.”
Psychiatrist Antonio Wood notes that when we speak ill of someone, we alienate ourselves from that person. The more negative our comments, the more distant we feel from that object. Thus, one who speaks unfairly of many people comes to distance and alienate himself from many individuals and as Dr. Wood notes, alienation is a major cause of depression, one of the most widespread disorders in America.
The Talmud tells us whoever shames his neighbor in public it is as if he shed his blood. – We know that words can hurt but is it really fair to equate it with killing a person?
The analogy is deemed apt because a shamed person’s skin blanches as the blood drains from his face. And more importantly a person who feels humiliated may wish he or she were dead. Public humiliation is nothing to make light of. The act of destroying one’s reputation can destroy one’s life. Jewish law regards humiliating another person, particularly in public, as one of the cruelest things anyone can do.
At a time when death by suicide is the 10th greatest cause of death and when according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, there are on average 129 suicides per day, shouldn’t we realize the impact of our words—whether it be in person or over social media, through cyber bullying.
Today lashon hara is not just engaged in by the spoken word-, it is committed electronically and through technology. It is all too easy to disseminate information by thoughtless text or email.
So many of our teenagers have to deal with bullying in middle school, high school and college-both in school and over social media. . And I wish it ended there. There are adult bullies who exert their power over others.
It’s not just talking ABOUT people that is dangerous but also the WAY we speak TO PEOPLE. These days we seemed to have lost the ability to engage in civil discourse.
Pirke Avot, a Jewish Ethical collection of pithy statements teaches, (5:17)
“A controversy for the sake of Heaven will have lasting value, but a controversy NOT for the sake of Heaven will not endure.” What is an example of a ‘controversy for the sake of Heaven’? The debates of Hillel and Shammai.
Hillel and Shammai were two different yeshivot-schools of study that often interpreted texts in different ways. “The sake of Heaven” in Hebrew is l’shem shamayim. Which came be understand as “for the greatest good.” The opposite of “for the sake of Heaven” is “for your own aggrandizement,” for your own benefit. That’s an important pole in rabbinic thought: You want your actions NOT to be for the gratification of your own ego, but rather for the sake of Heaven, in other words, for the greatest good. Good debate is utilized to come up with the best possible outcome in a complicated world; the other is because you want power for yourself, simply to steamroll over your opponent and show how smart and right you are.
When we are debating issues or engaging in dialogue –it doesn’t give us license to make the attack personal—attacking someone’s name, appearance, race, religion or sexual orientation. We run into great danger when we engage in such tactics.
In 2008, the late Senator John McCain was running as a candidate in the Republican Presidency. Senator McCain found himself at a rally in which people were denouncing his opponent Barack Obama as a “liar” and a “terrorist,” McCain shook his head, took the mike and said, “He’s a decent family man, a citizen that I had just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign is all about.” Rabbi Teluskin points out, Senator McCain in no way felt the need to minimize or downplay his political opposition to Obama but he didn’t feel that he had to denigrate his opponent as a human being.” Senator McCain recognized that each of us are created B’etzelem Elohim, in the image of God—and that we have a right to be treated respectfully.
And while most of us are not so cruel and mean spirited with our language, many of us still engage in gossip. Old habits are hard to break. It’s human nature to talk about other people. If we don’t gossip, what will we talk about? Will we just stare at each other in silence? Because gossiping is so engrained in society it takes a lot of conscious effort to refrain from engaging is such behavior.
Rabbi Telushnkin offers the following advice—
- Take it “One step at a time” What if every day for a two-hour period you were particularly careful to say nothing bad about anyone? Lunch or dinner might be an ideal time since much nasty gossip is spread and analyzed at mealtimes.
- A good litmus test is to consider whether you are speaking about others in a way that you wouldn’t mind being spoken about yourself. If something about us is to be made known, we want to choose when and whom to reveal it.
So how can we be more mindful with our words?
And how can we transform that evil inclination of spreading hurtful worlds into instead offering words of healing?
We can stop talking ABOUT people and start talking TO people.
We can ask about the person with are with—their day, their life experiences, and share more of ourselves-our own feelings and thoughts rather than than share information about other people.
We can be more present with the people who with. Instead of looking outside to make a connection—maybe more of those connections can come from looking within.
Renowned actress Lynn Fontanne, when asked the secret of a successful marriage to husband and acting partnership with, Alfred Lunt, an equally renowned actor, she responded that they were never uncivil to each other (p95)
One of my favorite biblical stores is the story of when an angel comes to tell Abraham that he and his wife, Sarah will become pregnant with a child. Both Abraham and Sarah are of advanced age and have been trying for unsuccessfully for numerous years to conceive. When Sarah overhears this news, she laughs and say, “I am to give birth with such an old husband?” Upon hearing her laughter, Abraham questions Sarah’s laughter. The angel comes to him says to Abraham, “Your wife laughed and asked how could she give birth when she was so old.” The language used was changed to spare Abraham’s feelings and promote Shalom HaBeit-Family Harmony. The angels changed the words in order to protect Abraham and Sarah’s relationship. The Torah is teaching us that the way a married couple speaks to one another is so critical that it can affect their relationships. The same is true for how we speak to our friends, our neighbors our parents and our children.
How can we create an atmosphere of Shalom HaBeit—Peace within our homes and communities rather than a place of tension and animosity?
Think of how good you feel when someone pays you a compliment or expresses gratitude for something you have done. We are so quick to critique but we are not always as gracious with the praise. Instead of gossiping about a friend—why not call that person directly—and see how they are doing? Sometimes just knowing someone is there can make all the difference.
On Yom Kippur we are charged not just to examine our deeds, but also our words. And the first step towards healing is often an acknowledgment of a misdeed, and an apology. Our words that have so much power to hurt also have so much power to heal.
We need safe spaces to share our feelings, but we also want to believe that those in which we entrust will protect those words.
I want to end with a powerful story I recently heard:
Mrs. Broom and Mrs. Gold were close friends. One morning Mrs. Broom came over to Mrs. Gold’s house and they sat down for their cup of morning coffee, and Mrs. Broom had something on her mind. She told a tragic story-a story of something that was going on in her family-of loss, of betrayal and of deceit. She just really needed to get this all off her chest. And she just spoke and spoke and spoke to Mrs. Gold until she could speak no more. And then she felt a little bit comforted, they hugged, and they kissed and the Mrs. Broom went on her way.
It wasn’t until after Mrs. Broom left that Mrs. Gold realized that her daughter had been listening the entire time and heard every word of Mrs. Broom’s private story. Mrs. Gold wasn’t quite sure how to handle this. She sat her daughter down and said, “I have a question for you, if Mrs. Broom had left her purse here when she came over this morning, would you give it to anyone else? The child said, “Of course not!” “Well why not?” asked Mrs. Gold to her daughter? Her daughter responded, “Well, that bag belongs to Mrs. Bloom and it would be wrong to share it with anyone else! Ah Mrs. Gold continued, “Well, you may have heard, but Mrs. Broom left something much more precious behind today than her purse. She left a story that could make many people unhappy. The story is not ours to give to anyone else. The story is still hers even though she left it here. So we won’t be giving Mrs. Broom’s story to anyone else, do you understand?
The daughter did understand. Ever since that time—a confidence or a bit of careless gossip that a friend left at her house, or in her heart, it was always considered personal and was never hers to share with anyone else.” 
How carefully do we guard the stories of others? How careful are we with our words? Do our words hurt, or do they heal?
This year may our words be one of healing, listening and civility.
G’mar Chamtimah Tovah—May you be Sealed for a Year of Blessing.
 Telushkin, Rabbi Joseph. Words that Hurt, Words that Heal. p.5
 Telushkin, Rabbi Joseph. Words that Hurt, Words that Heal, p.10-11
 BT Bava Mezia 58b
 Telushkin, Joseph. Words that Hurt or Heal.
 Telushkin, Rabbi Joseph. Words that Hurt, Words that Heal p.13-14
 Telushkin, Joseph. Words that Hurt, Words that Heal, page 54.
 Telushkin, Joseph. Words that Hurt, Words that Heal, page 214)
 Cantor Dreskin, Ellen. “What did you Leave on the Table?” Stories we Tell Podcast, URJ, September 12, 2019.