On the Power of Our Words
Ethan (איתן) Yakhin
Every week, a close friend and I do a podcast on a Jewish Author. This week we chose Rabbi Zelig Pliskin, and it couldn’t have been a better choice. I had a whirlwind of a week getting engrossed in the world of R. Pliskin, a fantastic and energizing author and lecturer whose viewpoint revolves around the concept of love, both for yourself and for others.
His energetic mantra, “Joyful Thoughts! Joyful Feelings! Joyful words! Joyful ACTIONS!!!” mamash swept me off my feet. It’s something I now find myself saying from time to time. It works, if for no other reason than the fact that as you are saying it, you feel so silly that you can’t help but grin.
I’ve loved Rabbi Pliskin for a while now, particularly his writing style in the books of his I’ve read. But it was only recently while watching him give shiurim that I was able to appreciate the full gravity of a man so passionate about love… Self-Love, Love of God, Love of Fellow. By the way, gravity is, as Rabbi Pliskin reminds us, something that we should be davka grateful for. If something breaks, it’s good to say, Baruch Hashem! Gravity still works!! You can’t help but smile at the infectious enthusiasm of this holy Tzaddik.
To prepare for our show, I decided to focus my efforts on a re-read of my favorite book of his, The Power of Words. In The Power of Words, Rabbi Pliskin uses wry humor and a matter-of-fact approach to take the time to enumerate practically all the different ways you might come to hurt people with words. As my co-host on our show pointed out, onaas dvarim, the prohibition of causing a fellow person pain with words, is a d’oraita prohibition, meaning a prohibition explicit in the Torah text, as opposed to an enactment by the rabbis. Nevertheless, it is something that we tend to take quite lightly. Particularly, and tragically, we tend to hurt with words those closest to us. Rabbi Zelig Pliskin’s Power of Words is a strong and much-needed reminder to think before we talk.
If something breaks, it’s good to say, Baruch Hashem! Gravity still works!!!!!
On a personal level, I find myself to be quite impulsive, and honestly, this is a book I should probably read every week. Having recently gotten married, I’ve found that my marriage will suffer if I don’t think carefully when I speak. More importantly, I could chas v’shalom end up hurting the person who cares for me most. During my latest read of The Power of Words, I got to observe myself as I spoke to my wife with unusually elevated care and forethought, often foregoing what I wanted to say in exchange for a much more satisfying option, peace. Obviously, this is a lifetime’s work and I’ve only just begun. Nevertheless, I am grateful to have Rabbi Pliskin’s guiding hand along the way.
An important point Rabbi Pliskin raises in The Power of Words is that if the pleasure you have from your speech is contingent on the pain of another person, that pleasure is worthless. I find this an important concept to keep in mind as we transition into an increasingly digital age. I find myself optimistic however, that my generation is taking upon itself kindness as an important virtue. I pray and hope that other books will follow in the suit of The Power of Words, and that I personally will integrate Rabbi Pliskin’s vision into my life.
Thinking before speaking wasn’t the only important lesson imparted by Rabbi Pliskin in The Power of Words. In perhaps what is the most stunning sentence of the book, he points out, “It is tragic how frequently appreciation is not acknowledged although it exists.” (Page 36)
As I have had the opportunity to find out, appreciation is great, but vocalizing it is better. Perhaps that is why it is so important to do P’sukei D’Zimra. Vocalizing the appreciation benefits not only the listener but also the person expressing his or her thanks. Thoughts aren’t tangible in a physical sense, but when we express ourselves positively, verbally, we release that positivity into the world thus making it, paradoxically, a more concrete part of us. This reminds me of the concept of giving tzedakah, that it does more for the giver than the recipient. We have the opportunity to give verbal tzedakah all day, and it’s free!
It is tragic how frequently appreciation is not acknowledged although it exists.
Giving praise isn’t always easy, but we should be ashamed at how quick we can be to jump to criticism and yet unnervingly silent when we have an opportunity to lavish praise. Don’t worry about the receiver of the praise becoming arrogant from the praise, points out R Pliskin. Just be appreciative. Grateful Thoughts! Grateful Feelings! Grateful Words! Grateful Actions!
It comes to mind that perhaps one reason Hashem chose to create the world using words is to teach us the incredibly creative and destructive power of our speech. We should internalize Rabbi Pliskin’s point, that words have an impact, words can harm, but they can also help, they can also heal. We should keep in mind that our words are, indeed, powerful.
What would I like to ask Rabbi Zelig Pliskin if I get the z’chut to meet him? I would ask him how could I be sensitive when declining a Shabbat dinner invitation from people with different kashrut standards than mine. I think Power of Words deserves a re-print as well as an expansion. What are some ways we can hurt people with words, and more importantly, how can we avoid that? Let me know!!!
Ethan Yakhin is the co-host of Open Book with Eitan and Itai, a Podcast both with and about Jewish Authors. To stay updated on upcoming episodes, you can follow Open Book on Instagram. The show is available wherever you listen to podcasts. You can have a look here at their podcast page.
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(Much Thanks to my wife for going over this article with me.)