Parashat Behar-Behukotai: On Harmful Speech and Awe of God

It is easy to hurt someone with words.  We do it all the time, in subtle and unsubtle ways, pointing out how another person is lacking in comparison to us, showing up their ignorance or incompetence, commenting on the relationship between their suffering and their own responsibility for it, reminding them of some hurtful or shameful past.    Sometimes the words just come out and we realize too late they could be hurtful in their implications.   We didn’t really mean it, but we didn’t think it through properly.   Other times there is some unconscious need to assert our own superiority, to say – you can’t do this right but I can – without actually saying those words.

One of the famous mitzvot in the first of this week’s parshiyyot is the prohibition against ona’at devarim – causing another person suffering through speech.    This prohibition is linked to the shmita and yovel years and comes after an initial prohibition against ona’at mammon, exploiting someone’s weakness or ignorance monetarily by overcharging in a business transaction.    The Talmud says that ona’at devarim is more severe than ona’at mamon; causing someone harm through words – though we do it more frequently – is actually worse than doing financial harm.

One proof of this greater severity is that the Torah adds with regard to ona’at devarim an extra phrase – veyareta me’elokekha.   You should fear your Lord.   Rashi on the pasuk explains that these types of actions may be unclear; the question is one of intention – did you intend harm through these words or not?  Only God knows.

What we are getting at here is a deep link between our speech and our heart – between what we say to others and what we really believe about God’s place in the universe.     Maybe it is not just that God is the judge of our intentions, but also that a sense of fear in God is actually the way we can control those intentions and ultimately the words that come out.

Yirat Elokim, a sense of fear or awe of God, may be the key to shaping both our hearts and our speech and moving them away from this place of ona’ah, harm to others.    What drives us in the first place to say such things is our constant need to assert ourselves as superior to others.   How do we get out of this mindset?   By understanding our true place in the universe, by understanding God’s true place in the universe.  A sense of awe involves cultivating an awareness of God’s Presence in every situation and every person that we meet.   When we feel this deeply, then we feel that each person – ourselves as well as others – are all part of this vast universe of God, all playing our parts, all pieces of the divine.  There is no superiority in this but a deep sense of belonging and kinship.

Shmita and Yovel – the seventh and fiftieth year rests for the land, and the return of the land to its original owner — both teach the agricultural lesson of divine ownership of the land.   They help us get out of the mindset of “mine” and “yours” and into the mindset of “God’s.”  Similarly, the prohibitions against both ona’at mamon and ona’at devarim remind us to cultivate a sense of divine presence and awe in relation to every person we meet.  This person and I are not “you” and “I” but both also “God’s,” not separate, but connected, not in competition, but both pieces of the divine.  Feeling God’s awe in that moment of interaction means cultivating a sense of humility – I am always small in relation to God – a sense of humility that wards against any inclination to superiority.  The question becomes not – how can I show that I am better than this person – but rather – how can I bring out the divine image in both of us?  How can I treat this human encounter as a divine encounter?

In my Mussar group this week, we are working on yirah, awe or fear of God, and one woman pointed out that most of the other traits we have tackled – generosity, patience, compassion,  . .  – were interpersonal in nature whereas this one seems totally God-centered.    She wondered whether there was some interpersonal side to awe as well.    This week’s parsha answers that question by placing the phrase “You shall fear your God” right after the prohibition against harmful speech.   How we think about God and the universe does affect how we interact with others and how we speak to others.   Keeping God in mind is the answer to our natural inclination to superiority, the answer to our tendency to ona’at devarim. Awe is interpersonal.

About the Author
Rachel Anisfeld holds a PhD in Jewish Studies and studies and teaches Torah in a variety of Atlanta adult education settings.
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