The other day my nephew, Yisrolik Zalmanov, was reading a book when my son asked: “Isn’t it boring to sit around all day and read? Books are just words.”
“Yes,” replied my nephew, “but words tell stories and stories are interesting. For example, you enjoy listening to story tapes and those too are just words.”
A light went off in my son’s eyes as he got the point. But not to be outdone, he countered, “But story tapes make funny voices, which make them interesting.”
“Ah,” replied my wise nephew. “when I read a book, I imagine the funny voices in my head…” Words aren’t just words. They are conveyors of ideas, stories and messages. Words can enlighten, entertain, annoy or inspire. They bring out our deepest emotions. When you want to convey your love, you use words. When you want to convey your anger, you use words. Words have power.
Words also elicit emotions. When you read a fictitious book, you respond emotionally despite knowing that the events never transpired. The story can move you to tears or action and it is words that elicit these feelings.The author skillfully crafts a series of words that trigger your deepest emotions, expose your deepest feelings and lay you bare.
Words uplift and words destroy. A therapist skillfully uses words to rebuild a fragile ego or sooth a tender heart. They aren’t just words. They have healing power; like a balm to the bruised spirit. A gifted speaker can move an entire audience. At motivational conferences, hundreds are routinely moved by well-crafted words of motivation. They walk away feeling empowered, confident, enthused and motivated. And words have made them so.
On the tongue of a skilled orator, words generate tension. You can sense energy in the room, when a speaker moves an audience. You can feel the unification of disparate souls as they follow the narrative. You can feel them coalesce, hanging on the razor edge of the orator’s words. They are like putty in the speaker’s hands, who raises them aloft with joy or hurls into depths of despair. Even casual words can leave a lasting impact. A well placed compliment can raise our spirit and melt us to pieces whereas a sharp tipped zinger can crush us. You don’t have to volunteer for it. Words find you where you are. You can fight it if you wish and the stronger you are the better you might shield yourself, but shield yourself you must, because words penetrate. They are infiltrative and effective. They enter the heart and build or destroy.
It was with words that G-d created the world. He spoke and it came to be. When He ordained that vegetation sprout forth, His words penetrated the earth, lodged in the soil and invested it with fertility. From creation we learn the power that words channel. Divine words channel Divine power, human words channel human power. They pale in comparison to G-d’s, but they are still powerful.They can’t break stones, but they crush hearts. They can’t move mountains, but they move people. They convey feeling and passion, raw spirit and energy. They connect and sever, build and destroy. They can make or break your day, not to mention your child.
Speech is the most powerful tool in the human arsenal. It is G-d’s gift to humanity. Other species communicate, but only humans use words. Greater than the wisdom of our minds, is the power of our oratory. It reaches deep within and brings forth ideas, emotions and energy. It penetrates others and conveys self same. They are powerful hooks that build bridges, craft entry points and forge connections.
If words are so powerful it follows that we must be exceedingly careful with the way we use them.
For example, when you speak of a fellow’s illness avoid dire pronouncements. Instead of saying, "my child is sick," say "my child requires healing." Shift your focus and bring positive energy to bear. Don’t say, "my friend is dying," because such statements usher that very energy into the world. This is even more devastating if it is said in the patient’s vicinity even if they don’t hear it. It ushers the spirit of death into their presence. Instead convey cheer and optimism. This isn’t denial. You can be as realistic as you like, but don’t transmit negative energy into the world through your words. Words, as we have established, are powerful conveyors of energy. Direct your words to convey positive energy.
If you must speak of death, employ positive euphemisms. Rather than death, speak of passing. Death implies cessation of existence, passing connotes graduation into a new realm. Never say, "I will have plenty of time to rest in my grave." It implies that there is no life after passing. In Hebrew a cemetery is a Bet Hakvarot, a house of graves. Rather than calling it a house of graves, many call it Bet Hachayim, house of [eternal] life.
In fact, our sages tell us that the righteous have no rest in the world to come for they are constantly in motion, ascending from strength to greater strength. The need for selecting our words carefully is never more critical than in times of anger. When our words convey heated negative energy, we must be exceedingly cautious. If you must disagree, avoid pointed and harsh criticisms or negative generalities. Address the issue, don’t shatter the person. If you must break ties with someone, don’t burn bridges. If you must speak out in public, do so with respect. Use your words like a brush, not a scalpel.
It’s a difficult lesson to learn and it takes a lifetime to get it right. But when we stop to consider that negative words convey negative energy, we realize that they are the equivalent of sledge hammers. Even in our angriest moments we don’t want to wield a sledgehammer. As we enter the month of Av, historically, a period of tragedy for our people, it is a good time to work on keeping a tighter lid on our temper and a steadier hand on the reins of our words.
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, a respected writer, scholar and speaker, is the spiritual leader of Beth Tefilah congregation in London, Ontario. He is the author of Reaching for God: A Jewish Book on Self Help, and his new book, Mission Possible: Living With Higher Purpose will be released this spring and can be pre-ordered by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org