Recently I was forwarded a copy of a post that caught me totally by surprise, and then completely turned me inside out with the incredibly powerful message it contained. The post reads:
When I was 18, I was in love with a soldier in the Israeli military. His family lived in the Judaean mountains — a few miles outside Jerusalem — and they hosted me for my last Sabbath in Israel.
I remember clearly many things about my visit. The view of Ramallah’s rock quarry from a nearby crest. The surprisingly crisp chill that night brought. Long, strenuous hikes through the hills. Young love, impulsive and seasoned with religious nationalism.
Having slept past sunrise on Saturday morning, I was unsure of which direction to pray in. I left the guest room and asked my boyfriend’s mother, “Which way is east?”
Over the course of a Jewish lifetime, my American experience had made “east” synonymous with “Jerusalem”. Israel was a dream to me, mostly unattainable, and far away. In my mind, it was eternally east.
My hostess smiled. “We are north of Jerusalem,” she told me. “Face south.” With that, she pointed in the correct direction.
As I prayed, her words sank into me like heavy weights. They pressed on my soul and wouldn’t let go.
After weeks of touring the land, this tiny conversation was THE moment at which I fully understood and claimed my presence in Israel. It is hard for me to explain this, but those two short words – “face south” – brought the Land of Israel to life in a way that nothing else had.
Although the young lady was writing about Israel and her connection to it, what caught my breath was the fact that I didn’t even remember the conversation. I didn’t remember saying those words. For me, they were just two words, spoken almost without thought, without any awareness of potential impact. Just two words thoughtlessly spoken.
Now, 10 years after speaking those two simple, thoughtless words, I learned that those words had a profound impact on this young woman. She later clarified to me that those two words re-oriented her, helping her to re-evaluate her relationship with Israel. That she had been conditioned, over a lifetime, that Jerusalem was East. And it is, if you live in the US (OK, its also east if you live in Tel Aviv, but I’m not going to get into the parallels there). For her, that moment made her realize that when in Israel, you have a different relationship with Jerusalem, and you have to change your mindset, the way you think.
But, what struck me as even more profound than the impact those two words had on this young lady, was that those two words, thoughtlessly spoken, had such an impact on that young lady.
What brought tears to my eyes wasn’t that I had so positively affected someone with only two words, but the sudden realization that I had probably thoughtlessly spoken two words thousands of times in my life. How many of them had an impact, but not the way I might hope? How many times had two words, thoughtlessly spoken, crushed someone’s hopes, their self-image, their relationship with G-d, G-d forbid? How many times had two words thoughtlessly spoken caused someone to give up, or to lash out at someone else? How many times had two words destroyed a marriage, ruined a reputation or cut off a connection?
Most of us don’t give much thought to the things we say. Many of us wear the phrase “I have no filter” as a badge of honor, or at the very least, as a character quality that nothing can be done about. People say things on social media that they would never say in person because the distance factor seems to embolden that part of us. And yet, Judaism puts an extremely high value on our words. Words are powerful the Torah tells us. With words, worlds are created. And destroyed. That’s why we have such strong laws about negative speech. The Tanach addresses the issue of speech in one form or another dozens of times. King Solomon wrote in the book of Mishlei (Proverbs) – Life and death are in the hands of the tongue. (18:21).
Think about that for a minute. Life and death are in the hands of the tongue. The Talmud compares negative speech to a sword, but I think its more like a gun. Some people wield a gun without even thinking of the power it contains. Unfortunately, the result is that people die. Sometimes on purpose, and sometimes by accident. The first rule of gun safety is, “never aim it at anything you don’t intend to kill, even if you think its not loaded.” That’s a rule we need to apply to our speech.
Because we never know the impact of two words thoughtlessly spoken.