Seemingly harmless words

Key to life, Conceptual photo. On color wooden background

By Sara Gila Margulies

Imagine if someone claimed that he had discovered the secret to attaining unspeakable wealth and that he was willing to share his discovery with the world. Who would be foolish enough not to jump at such an opportunity? Well, in Sefer Tehillim (Psalms), Dovid HaMelech (King David) already revealed to us just such a secret: “Who is the man who desires [eternal] life…Guard your tongue from speaking evil and your lips from speaking deceit.” It’s guaranteed. When we work on protecting our mouths from speaking hurtful, slanderous words about others, we are ensuring eternal life for ourselves. The key to such an incredible treasure is truly within our grasp.

But, somehow, even though we know intellectually that it’s wrong to speak negatively of others, practically speaking, we don’t always succeed in avoiding doing it. How many times do we jump into a conversation without thinking, only to contribute something that turns out to be juicy gossip? How often do we blurt out hurtful comments and words to others that we instantly (or shortly thereafter) regret? It happens more than we’d like to admit. Picture someone seated as a guest at a wedding reception. The talk at his table is about the new supermarket that just opened up in the neighbourhood. Eager to share his opinion with the others, this person smiles at the other guests around him and then flippantly says, “Oh, the prices there are outrageous. I stepped in there once to buy a few groceries – never again.” The people around him nod in agreement, and, just like that, someone’s livelihood has now been threatened. Who can say how far the fire that has just been lit will eventually spread and how many people will end up being influenced?

Imagine a mother standing in the queue at a parent/teacher meeting. While trying to pass the time, she innocently asks the parent in front of her, “So, how is your daughter finding Mrs. Katz this year? Isn’t she just wonderful? My daughter adores her classes and is doing so well in school!” This other mother to whom she made her comments suddenly turns red, shrugs her shoulders, and then quickly changes the topic. At least two people have been potentially hurt by such thoughtless words. This other mother clearly does not have a favourable impression of Mrs. Katz, which may, in turn, have an effect on the way the speaker now views her daughter’s beloved teacher. At the same time, the speaker has caused this other mother pain, albeit unintentionally, since the other mother’s daughter is obviously having difficulty in school this year. The speaker’s words have brought to the forefront of this other mother’s mind the struggles that her daughter is currently facing.

In both of the above cases, the speaker surely meant no harm and was simply making conversation, just expressing opinions about seemingly mundane matters. The words, however, turned out to be anything but mundane. They became sharp arrows that pierced others’ hearts and threatened their wellbeing, even their livelihood! How could that be? It’s simple, just as our words have the ability to empower others, build up their confidence, and even heal broken hearts, they also have the potential to literally destroy others forever.

So how can we prevent our lips from speaking wrongly? Are we doomed to vows of silence and avoidance of speech altogether? Absolutely not. On the contrary, the Chofetz Chaim, who dedicated his life to promoting proper speech, would go out of his way to seek out conversations with others. He taught us that we are not supposed to sit locked up in isolation to avoid speaking to people and potentially hurting them with our words. Rather, we are meant to build relationships with others by interacting with them, with one important caveat: we must think before we speak, taking a moment to consider what we are about to say before we say it. If there is a decent chance that our words may cause pain or ill feelings to another person, whether directly or as an outcome of what we’ve said, then we must avoid saying such things. And, if we decide that our words won’t have such an effect, we can go ahead and speak. In this way, we build relationships, rather than doing the opposite.

Let’s remember that eternal life is within our grasp. All it takes is a little bit of thought, effort, and the desire to do the right thing.

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