By: Deborah Abecassis Warshawsky
Girl drama. With three daughters, I’ve had my share of “she said” and “but she said,” and, unfortunately, I will likely encounter more as I am just embarking on the teen years. When their friends “hate” teachers my girls love, or deride fellow students whom my girls accept for who they are, or treat and speak to my girls in a way they do not appreciate, we struggle together with the best response. No matter how many ways I find to reaffirm confidence in their moral instinct, I can physically feel each negative comment chipping away at their innocent basic goodness, and it breaks my heart. Words are powerful.
When we say the Viduy (confession prayer) several times over Yom Kippur, I am always struck by how many sins address words. We ask God for forgiveness “for the sin we have sinned before You:” by an utterance of our lips, in speech, by insincere confession, by impure lips, by foolish speech, by deceit and lies, by evil speech, by the idle chatter of our lips, and by gossip. I wonder when and where my words fall into these categories. It’s not always easy to differentiate the nuances. Is recounting a story about a friend or acquaintance gossip, even if the intent is concern or amazement and not malicious? When I complain about waiting in a doctor’s office or the line at IGA or missing a run with a friend because my child threw up (and missed the bathroom) am I engaging in “idle chatter” or am I venting for my own mental health? Is good humour teasing a sign of affection or foolish speech? How do we know when our conversation crosses the line to “sinful?”
In Parashat Ha’azinu, Moses, on the last day of his life, delivers a song to Israel in which he traces the Israelite people’s relationship to God and warns them of the consequences should they not follow God’s commandments. The song (and the parashah) begin “Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak and may the earth hear the words of my mouth.” Ha’azinu is translated literally as “give ear,” but essentially Moses is asking the heavens and earth to listen and to serve as witnesses to what he is about to say. The parashah begins with “Listen.”
The end of the parashah tells us, “Moses finished speaking all these words to all Israel. He said to them, take to heart all the words that I testify against you today, which you are to instruct your children to be careful to perform all the words of this Torah, for it is not an empty thing for you, for it is your life, and through this matter shall you prolong your days on the land to which you cross Jordan, to take possession of it.”
From the repetition of the phrase “all these words,” we learn that no detail in the Torah is superfluous, that there is meaning and value in every word, and that we can find significance even in the most seemingly benign triviality of a story. The rabbis of the Talmud explained that in the phrase “for it is not an empty thing for you, for it is your life,” the emphasis “for you,” teaches us that if we do find words of the Torah to be empty or seemingly said in vain, then this “emptiness” comes from us – in other words, it is our fault that the words have no meaning – because we have not studied the Torah enough.
When we think about the meaning of words that we speak or write (or text) and the significance we attribute to them, we are often teaching our children, and thinking for ourselves, how are our words affecting others – are they hurtful or mean, insulting or disrespectful. Often, though, our perception of these words is different than the one who receives them. What we may think is funny may be extremely painful to the recipient. We may find our own speech to be harmless, or insignificant, or “empty” of value, but when the rabbis say “it’s your fault if you find the words empty,” I think about what my words say about me, as the Torah says, “for it is your life.” What image of myself do my words convey? Do I want people to see me as a complainer? What does it say about me if the only interesting thing I have to tell you is somebody else’s failing or hardship? Am I teasing you because it masks my own insecurities?
The nuance of words and stories accompanied by tone and context remain a challenge. Moses said, “take to heart all the words.” We know in our hearts which of our words do us proud. When the parashah begins with “listen,” and teaches us towards the end “for it is not an empty thing for you, for it is your life,” we need to listen to what our speech says about our own lives. Model kindness and respect for others. Teach our children to think about how their words represent them and how they want to be represented.
Our mothers (or at least, my mother) said, “If you have nothing nice to say, say nothing.” The updated internet/Pinterest version is: “Before you speak, THINK: Is what you are about to say Thoughtful, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary or Kind.” Your words are powerful – do they tell us who you really are?
Please keep Jay Sokoloff – Yosef Yisrael ben Zelda – in your prayers this Shabbat and through the holiday of Sukkot.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach.
Discussion questions for the Shabbat Table:
What does Moses mean when he tells the Israelites to “take all the words to heart?”
- Why do you think the Torah repeats the phrase “all the words”, four times in the last passage of the parashah?”
- What are “empty words?”
- Who decides which words are “empty?”
- How do you feel when you speak nice to someone? How do you feel when you say something not nice?
- What do you think your own speech says about you?