The Power of Our Words

Yael Eckstein  |  April 14, 2021

Three women laughing and talking over coffee.

When anyone has a swelling or a rash or a shiny spot on their skin that may be a defiling skin disease, they must be brought to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons who is a priest.” — Leviticus 13:2

Each week in synagogue, Jews read through the Torah from Genesis to Deuteronomy. The Torah portion for this week is a double reading, Tazria-Metzora, from Leviticus 12:1—15:33. Tazria means “conceived,” and Metzora means “diseased.”

You probably remember as a child, as I do, that sing-song response to someone who just called you an unkind name, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” However, as I’m sure you also experienced as you grew older, we learned that this simply wasn’t true. Cruel words hurt!

This week’s Torah reading centers around a spiritual malady that presented itself as a potentially life-threatening physical disease. The person afflicted with the disease is called a metzora. The term is a contraction of three Hebrew words: motzi shem ra, which means “someone who spoke badly about another person.” This reveals the crime of the afflicted – he used his words to harm another person.

I think we can all agree that words can hurt, but is this offense bad enough to deserve such a harsh punishment? After all, words are just words. They may sting for a moment, but then they are gone with the wind. Aren’t they?

The Power of Our Words

There is a story told about a man who went around slandering the rabbi of his town. After some time, he regretted his actions and turned to the rabbi for forgiveness saying that he would do anything to make amends. The rabbi told him to take a pillow, open it, and let the feathers scatter in the wind.

The man did as he was told and then returned to the rabbi. The rabbi said, “Now go and collect all of the feathers.” The man replied, “But that’s not possible!” Then the rabbi made his point, “And so it is with words. Once they leave your mouth, it is impossible to retract them and who knows how far they will reach.”

This is why the Bible views the sin of speaking badly about others as such a serious offense. The power of our words have an incredible impact. In Judaism, words are compared to arrows; once shot, their direction is no longer in our control, and their effect can be deadly. The Bible tells us, “The tongue has the power of life and death” (Proverbs 18:21).

Today is a good time to start reflecting on the power of our words. After all, broken bones can heal, but hurtful words go on forever.

Your Turn:

Here’s a tool that helps me: Before you speak T.H.I.N.K. Ask yourself: Is it True? Is it Helpful? Is it Inspiring? Is it Necessary? Is it Kind? Let me know if you have a way to keep your tongue in check!