Is the adage that “sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never hurt me” really true? In the Hebrew language, the verb “to speak”(ledaber), has the same root as the noun “thing” (davar). As this week’s parsha illustrates, this connotes the fundamental Jewish belief that words have power. Words can change the material world. They can lead a people to found a State, or to go back to slavery. And they can lead a person to accomplish his or her potential, or to wither away.
This week’s parsha, Shelah’, recounts the story of the twelve princes of Israel on a reconnaissance spying mission to the Land of Israel. Ten of the twelve Spies returned with frightening stories of giants, superior armies, fortified cities, and descendants of super-natural beings who fell off of the sky in the early days of humankind. Their negative reports so frightened the Israelites that they decided to rebel (one more time) against G-d and Moshe, and to appoint a new leader to take them back to Egypt.
The parsha teaches that words can be the link between negative inner emotions and self-destructive action. “We were like grasshoppers in our own eyes and thus also in their eyes,” recount the spies when describing some inhabitants of the Land. Their lack of self-confidence and security diminished the princes of Israel in the eyes of their beholders. Their words conveyed fear and powerlessness. And they paralyzed the people and led them to regress into the false security of slave life.
But the Torah also teaches us that words can transcend fear and other emotions and lead to positive action, which itself can lead to a transformation of the emotional make-up of the speaker. Back in parshat Beshalah’, a newly appointed Moshe already had to deal with a rebelling people so paralyzed by fear that they longed to return to Egyptian slavery. That time, they were landlocked between the Red Sea and the attacking Egyptian army, and they blamed Moshe for taking them out of Egypt only to die in the desert.
When Moshe cried out to G-d, the answer was: “Why are you crying to me? Speak (daber) to the people, and they will go forth.” There ensued the speech that I believe launched Moshe as a leader and resonated deeply with the fearful, newly-freed slaves: “Do not fear, stand up and witness G-d’s salvation that He will do for you today, for you will never again see the Egyptians the way you saw them today. G-d will fight on your behalf, and you will stay quiet.”
This was exactly what the Israelites needed to hear. Just freed from slavery, it was unthinkable for them to take on their masters and their military machine. Conditioned to be dominated, they forgot the Ten Plagues and the miracles that G-d had just brought upon Egypt to crush it. As Rashi wrote, G-d asked Moshe not only to speak to the people but “to speak to their hearts.” With a few powerful, simple words, Moshe reminded the Israelites that they were on G-d’s journey and they would not be asked to take on more than they could handle.
The rest is history. The Red Sea swallowed the Egyptians and allowed the Israelites to traverse. And no sooner were the Israelites on the other bank that they “acquired faith in G-d and his servant Moshe” and broke into the Shira, a confident song of gratitude. Moshe’s words transcended his own self-doubt and the Israelites’ fear. They grounded his leadership and propelled his people towards Sinai and freedom, away from slavery.
Joshua and Caleb, the two lone princes of Israel who stood for Moshe, followed his example and reignited the people’s faith. “Have no fear of the people of the Land,” they dissented. “They will be our bread [as in, we will eat them for breakfast], their protection has left them, and G-d is with us, fear not!” Both Joshua and Caleb went on to enter the Promised Land, the former as Moshe’s successor. The ten princes’ disempowering words, on the other hand, led to their untimely death in the desert.
Today the news are flooded with words of verbal abuse, divisiveness, and even incitement. Words have power. Let us be mindful of how we use them, in both our public and private lives.