Words Can Hurt, You Know

In the wake of the latest terror attacks in Israel, I started to think about a term that has been thrown around a lot lately. The word is INCITEMENT and I’ve heard it said hundreds of times- in the news, in conversations with my peers and with my teachers.  Incitement has been the cause of so much bloodshed in Israel and around the world.  It is my firm belief, however, that there is a darker force behind incitement.  More fundamental in nature, more sinister in its tactics, more disastrous in its effects.  It is a phenomenon I have witnessed time and time again, and it only appears to be getting worse.

The phenomenon I am referring to is an abuse of the gift of speech.

Words.  The thing that sets humanity apart: alone among God’s creations, singularly selected for this most wondrous of gifts.  The power of precise communication.  The ability to express exactly what we are thinking at any given moment.  We are blessed with this tremendous tool, that has, since its creation, empowered us, drawn us closer to one another, enabled us to verbalize ideas, emotions, and thoughts.  All of literature, every great speech ever delivered, each “I love you” whispered to the love of one’s life or to a child being tucked into bed after playing the day away- all of it is owed to the gift of speech.  A gift we so readily take for granted.

What we fail to realize- worse yet, what we fail to internalize- is that speech is also mankind’s greatest weapon.  Our sages teach us that idle talk and lashon hara are two of humanity’s greatest pitfalls.  The classic story is told of a man who has a serious problem with lashon hara.  Whenever he hears a story about his fellow, he instinctively relates the tale.  He embellishes details, revels in gossip, and spreads slander both true and false.  After the man severely harms another member of his town, the local rabbi is alerted to the problem.  The rabbi summons the man with the lashon hara habit and teaches him just how evil his ways are.  The man begs for forgiveness and asks what he can do to atone for his misdeed.  The rabbi instructs him to fetch a large feather pillow so, skeptical but obedient, the man goes home and retrieves such a pillow.  The rabbi then tells the man to cut open the pillow and shake it out, allowing the feathers to fall from the window.  The feathers are swept away by the wind, flying in all directions.  After ten minutes, the rabbi tells the man, “Now go and collect every single feather from the pillow.”  After hours of chasing down feathers from all over town, the man comes back to the rabbi, admitting failure.  “Such is the severity of lashon hara,” replies the rabbi.  “Once spread, it is virtually impossible to repair the damage.”

This story conveys the harm that can be done simply with our speech.  Even if we recant our statements, even if our remorse leads us to change our ways, the damage can never truly be undone.  In the words of my favorite Brett Dennen song, “People walk a tightrope on a razor’s edge, carrying their hurt and hatred and weapons / It could be a bomb, or a bullet, or a pen, or a thought, or a word, or a sentence.”  If we fail to understand the weight words carry or the influence we have through our speech, we endanger everyone around us.

I have been witness to the power of speech in my life.  I know how it works.  In school, and in camp, words are too often used to hurt, to insult, to exclude.  From the stereotypical lunchroom seat drama, to the way high school seniors speak to each other when they do or do not get into their dream colleges- these are crucial moments, and the wrong words can be disastrous.  As a counselor in camp over the past two summers, I have learned how influenced a camper can be by the way his counselor speaks.  When a counselor compliments or congratulates a camper, there is no greater joy on that camper’s face.  When somebody uses their words to put down a camper, there is no stronger punch.

This summer I was a counselor at Camp Morasha, a co-ed Modern Orthodox sleepaway camp in Pennsylvania.  In my division’s sports leagues, each team had its share of good days and bad days, and on those bad days it was not uncommon for the kids to become frustrated- just like in every other summer camp. From time to time they would shout at their teammates and coaches, sometimes even complaining during the day that they wanted to be ‘traded’ to different teams.  Their frustrations were understandable, but their language- that was an opportunity for education.  We did our best to teach the kids how to conduct themselves and how to speak to their teammates.  In truth, these lessons are lifelong processes; as counselors, we can only hope that during that brief summer we have some impact on our kids’ development.

A particular cause I have taken upon myself is to abandon the offensive word “retard,” often unashamedly requesting of my friends that they do the same.  When used as an insult, the word “retard” cheapens the struggles of individuals with special needs.  Moreover, it suggests that to be associated with said individuals- individuals who struggle, persevere, and inspire- is an insult.  You can imagine how pleased I was when Morasha used its pre-Shabbat program on the Friday before Tisha B’av as an opportunity to share a video raising awareness about the use of the R word.  The video is online, and if you haven’t seen it yet you really ought to.

Although these personal experiences are significant, there are more global ramifications for the abuse of speech, as well.  In an age when the most bombastic language, not content, draws the most attention, it seems as though anybody can have an opinion even if they have no facts.  Infamously, more and more people have been criticizing Donald Trump for some of his controversial views.  However, the candidate I personally find more insulting and more dangerous is Ben Carson.  Carson is what happens when the approach of ‘using language when you lack substance’ is taken way too far.  Carson has said that homosexuality is a choice because “a lot of people who go into prison go into prison straight and when they come out they’re gay.”  He has called Obamacare worse than slavery.  He referred to ‘rabid dogs’ when describing Syrian refugees.  Most alarming to this Jewish teenager is Carson’s strange fascination with the Holocaust: he has compared the U.S. to Nazi Germany, and claimed, in a discussion about gun control, that the Jews could have avoided the Holocaust if they had weapons- among other statements.

This is no joke.  Using inflamed language baselessly is wrong.  Making hateful comments like this about gays or refugees or Muslims or Democrats is wrong.  Ann Coulter’s tweet calling President Obama a ‘retard’ is wrong, just as when you call your friend a retard, it is wrong. Screaming at your bunkmate that he is ‘a girl’ because he missed a layup is wrong.

When Palestinians talk this way about Jews and Israelis, we call it INCITEMENT.  But what do we call it when our neighbour calls Democrats “anti-Semites,”  or our campers call their friends “fags,” or candidates seeking political office call refugees “terrorists”?  Do we feel the same horror, are our objections as vocal?  Is it possible that we abhor Nazi Germany calling Jews “vermin,” but condone calling modern refugees “rabid dogs”?  These aren’t easy questions.  It is much, much easier to notice hatred when you are the victim than it is to respond to the mistreatment of the Other.  But taken to their logical extremes, aren’t the results evil and wrong, just the same?

A prime example came following the murder of Ezra Schwartz (HY”D) on November 19 by a Palestinian terrorist.  Upon hearing the news, my first thought was just thinking how numb we here in Israel have become so quickly.  The first terrorist attacks this fall came as a shock.  But how quickly we settled back into normal routines, how swiftly we were willing to accept murder as the norm.  I feel somehow guilty for only truly feeling the pain when the victim was someone in my extended social circles, when I was relatively unimpacted by previous incidents.

More distressing to me, however, was seeing how Ezra’s death was so quickly turned into a pawn for incitement.  That very Thursday night I was shocked and dismayed to see my Facebook newsfeed filled with exclamations that Palestinians should never get a state, Israeli settlements should continue, the U.S. should ‘bomb the Arabs’ (what that even means, I have no idea), and that those who vote Democrat in 2016 have Israeli blood on their hands.  I wish I were kidding, but this is the reality we are facing.  As long as we do not learn how to speak, how to use our words, there will always be incitement.  There will always be injustice.  Sometimes it is directed at us, sometimes, unfortunately, it is perpetrated by us.  But at its core, is it not the same?

If you are by any chance still with me in this blog post, hopefully I have conveyed the problem at hand.  I now return to the beginning: Humans are the only ones with the tool of speech.  It is a tremendous gift and it should be used, cherished, and nurtured.  But with great power comes great responsibility.  Will the next generation be one of more compassionate, thoughtful, intelligent citizens of the world?  Or will we see further polarization that will perpetuate the crises of today?  I believe we can make a change.  But the only way to change the world is to first change our communities, and the only way to change our communities is to first change ourselves.

After Ezra Schwartz’s funeral was live-streamed straight into the beit midrash of Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi, where I am spending my year, the screen went blank. Surrounded by 65 students and rebbeim, now sitting in the dark, I felt silence permeate the room. It would have been easy to sulk in the darkness in the world. But somebody started singing a song that, since the funeral, took on new meaning: “Esa Einai el h’Harim, me’Ayin Yavo Ezri.”  I raise my eyes to the mountains, from where will it come, my Ezra (my help)? With tears coming from my eyes, I thought, “How will I bring Ezra into my life?”  Huddled by the light of the Ner Tamid that illuminates our beit midrash at all times, we then sang Acheinu (Our Brothers), the quintessential Jewish anthem of unity.  And in that song I found my answer.  Only when I treat the Other as a brother, equally created in the image of God, will I have the courage to change.  To abandon the incitement. To do away with the hatred, and to teach my children and their children too that our words matter.  True, Acheinu is just a song, and you may call me naive, but I think it’s a good place to start.

About the Author
Corey Berman is a student at the University of Pennsylvania. He was raised in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, and has attended the Frisch School, Brandeis University's Genesis high school program, and Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi in Jerusalem.
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