The Power of Words: A Pre-Yom Kippur Reflection

Words are powerful.  Our sages taught (Avot 5:1) that God created the world with ten sayings, each one a combination of words.   We begin His praises each morning by proclaiming that with words He brought the world into being.  Judaism’s most sacred object is the  Torah scroll, consists of words written on parchment.

Our words lack  the sanctity of God’s, but they are more powerful than we realize.  They can help or hurt others, causing pleasure or pain.  A line from one of my favorite poems (“The Fool’s Prayer,” by Edward Rowland Sill) sums up this insight:

The ill-timed truth we might have held — who knows how sharp it pierced and stung?
The word we had not sense  to  say — who knows how grandly it had rung?

Our ability to use words as tools to express ideas is what separates us from animals.  It is a critical component of what makes us human.  But like any product of human ingenuity, words can do great harm if used irresponsibly.

The technology of the modern world has magnified exponentially the ability of our tools to affect the world around us and the people who live in it.  Our weaponry can kill larger numbers with greater accuracy.  Our communications can reach more people faster and more cheaply.

Mark Twain famously said that a lie can get halfway around the world while the truth is getting its boots on.  Of course, Twain lived in a day when the printed word was the predominant medium of mass communication.  What would he have made of the internet and the 24-hour news cycle?

Words can clarify or distort.  They can convey passion or mimic it. They can promote virtue or vice.  But because of modern technology, whatever they do can be done far more efficiently and to greater effect than ever before.

There are those who knowingly distort facts, who cynically use the power of words to promote positions they know to be wrong.  They won’t care what anyone else says.  The only defense against them is a skeptical eye.

But then there are the rest of us.  We advocate positions that we believe to be right.  We present facts that we believe to be true.  We try to respect the norms of civil discourse. We avoid ad hominem attacks.  We believe that the best gauge of ultimate truth is the free marketplace of ideas.

But sometimes we get carried away.  In the heat of argument we may distort an adversary’s position.  We may unnecessarily personalize an argument that should be a clash of ideas.  We may transmit information from sources we know to be unreliable.

The approach of Yom Kippur provides a good opportunity for all of us to examine our words over the past year and to try to do better.  However careful we were, there’s always room for improvement.

If any of the posts on my blog have distorted facts, personalized an argument or strained the limits of civil discourse, please forgive me.  If any of my words have caused unnecessary pain, I ask forgiveness, for that was not my intention.

Gemar chatima tovah — an easy and meaningful fast to all.

About the Author
Douglas Aronin is a retired attorney living in Forest Hills, Queens, who is continuing his lifelong involvement in the Jewish community. His writings have appeared in a wide range of print and online forums.