Jewish tradition places great emphasis on the power of words. We are taught in Pirkei Avot (5:1) that “[b]y ten acts of speech the world was created.” We begin pesukei dezimra (the verses of praise) each morning by acknowledging that God created the world using words alone. The most sacred artifact of our faith is the Torah, which consists of words written on parchment. With words we can do great good, and with words we can do great harm.
Modern technology, of course, magnifies the power of our words. It’s as if we each have been handed a giant megaphone, one capable of sending our words instantaneously around the world. No technological tool exemplifies this power more than the internet. Not only does it allow us to share our thoughts with an exponentially larger audience than previous generations would have dreamed possible, but it even enables us to do so anonymously, thus evading responsibility for any damage that our words may cause. Even those of us who would never think of sending anonymous messages can sometimes take comfort in the fact that, to many of those who read our words, we are in effect nothing more than e-mail addresses.
In at least one respect, however, the power of words magnified by the power of the internet is no different from its more primitive ancestor. Once our words are unleashed, we no longer control them. We may comfort ourselves with the illusion that we can “correct the record” somehow, but we know that our careless words may still be out there somewhere, ready to reveal themselves at an inopportune moment.
Does all this sound strange — maybe even hypocritical — coming from someone who blogs regularly? I don’t think so. The remedy for the careless use of words is not perpetual silence, but rather the careful use of words. Like much else in our rapidly changing world, the internet is a tool which human beings may use for good or ill. The answer is not to become Luddites but rather to harness the internet — like the other products of human ingenuity — for beneficial purposes.
There is an antidote to irresponsible behavior, an antidote that applies to low-tech and high-tech behavior alike. That antidote is the process we call teshuva (repentance). We need to seek forgiveness from those whom we have harmed and to commit ourselves to be more careful next year. We will probably fall short again, but hopefully a little less so.
I try to be conscious of the power of the keyboard, but I am, like the rest of you, a fallible human being. If any of my words have caused pain this year, or if I have inadvertently misled you about relevant facts, please forgive me, for that was not my intention.
Gemar chatima tovah — an easy and meaningful fast to all.