Avtalyon said: Sages, be careful with your words, lest you incur the penalty of exile, and you are exiled to a place of evil waters, from which your students who follow you will drink and die; and the name of Heaven will be profaned. (Avot 1:11)
Words are powerful.
God created the world with words.
The opening words of the Torah are, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” In the Hebrew original, the words “the heavens” and “the earth” are preceded by the two-letter word et, which, while untranslatable into English, signifies a direct object. That word is spelled with the Hebrew letters aleph and tav – that is, the first and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The Zohar, Judaism’s most famous mystical text, comments that the first four words of the Torah in Hebrew thus read, Bereshit bara Elokim et – which, idiomatically, the Zohar understands as, “In the beginning God created et” – that is, the letters from aleph to tav. The first thing God created was the alphabet, which He then used as the tool to create everything else.
Clearly, God’s speech is not like our speech. It’s not “speech” at all. Yet by portraying God as using words in order to create, the Torah is telling us that our use of words is somehow comparable to a divine activity. Indeed, when we use words, we are engaging in imitatio Dei, walking in God’s ways.
And when we misuse words, we violate the image of God that is planted in our souls.
Using words correctly can create a universe. Using them carelessly can destroy the world.
On Tuesday, October 17th, reports emerged about an Israeli strike against the Al-Ahli Baptist Hospital in the Gaza Strip. According to early reports, five hundred Palestinians were killed. Many mainstream media outlets immediately printed and broadcast the story as told to them by the Palestinian Health Ministry. The BBC, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and countless others used words on their platforms to promote this claim.
Words are powerful. In this case, they were used to broadcast a story to the entire world that portrayed Israel as murderous.
It was also a lie.
Not one detail was correct. It was a hospital courtyard, not a hospital. Nowhere near 500 people were killed. And most crucially, Israel had absolutely nothing to do with it. (You can read my initial reaction to this Hamas-led slander of Israel here.)
Earlier today, the New York Times (somewhat tepidly) acknowledged its mistake, and said that it would attempt to be more careful in the future.
The problem is that words once spoken cannot really be taken back. Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan, known as the Chofetz Chaim, once compared atoning for evil speech with gathering the feathers of a pillow that was ripped up in the wind; it’s nearly impossible to undo that which was already done.
And so much harm has come from this slanderous report.
Demonstrations across the world that target Israel. And Jews.
Vandalism across the world that targets Israel. And Jews.
Words spoken on social media and in person that target Israel. And Jews.
And when those words inspire someone to slaughter another Jew – and they will – it will represent the destruction of an entire world.
The Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5) explains that the first man was created alone rather than as part of a society in order to teach that every person represents the entire universe; anyone who causes the death of a human being is therefore culpable for destroying a world.
And as God created each entire universe with words, the careless and libelous words that echoed across the planet last Tuesday will ultimately contribute to the destruction of world after world after world.
And no retraction can change that reality.
Avtalyon said: Sages, be careful with your words. Because the self-proclaimed moral sages of today ignore his dictum, worlds will be lost forever.
And a “We’ll do better next time” notice six days later will never absolve anyone of moral culpability.
Words are powerful. Words are permanent. We can’t begin to imagine how dangerous those reckless words will continue to be.