Words That Hurt, Words That Heal by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

Compiled by Luke Ford

"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." In our hearts, we know this is not true even though it may be a useful attitude to take when insulted by others.

Unless you've been a victim of violent crime or of a major illness or something else catastrophic, your deepest pains have probably come from hurtful words.

Words matter. One Hebrew term for words is devarim which also means things. Words are things.

The first book of the Bible, Genesis, says that God created the world through words. "Let there be light and there was light."

Human beings also create through words. Novels move us because the author's use of words captures our heart and mind, causing us to feel emotions such as anger, surprise and delight.

Words can hurt or words can heal, to adapt the title of the best book on this subject - Rabbi Joseph Telushkin's Words That Hurt, Words That Heal. This chapter is based on that book.

Through the use of derogatory language, many people have been and still are viewed as sub-human. For examples, Jews were called "Christkillers" and blacks "apes, jungle bunnies and niggers." Why these names? Because they diminish the humanity of the other and makes them easier to hate. The language creates an environment for lynching and genocides.

By saying that abortion equals murder, pro-lifers caused the murder of several abortion doctors.

The hate directed at the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, called a "Nazi" and a "traitor" by his opponents, led to his assasination.

Words can kill.

In Shakespeare's Othello, the villain Iago vows to destroy the Moorish general Othello for bypassing him for promotion. Iago repeats charges often enough that Othello's new wife Desdemona is having an affair, that Othello, prone to jealousy, believes him and murders his wife, only to learn moments later that Iago's words were false.

Even if you say the truth, it does not justify unnecessarily passing on hurtful information about someone. Remember, it's gossip when true, slander when false. Both are wrong.

Gossip and slander ruins families, breaks up marriages, separates friends and destroys community.

Speaking ill of others is particularly bad because words, once uttered, can never be recalled.

A man in a small Jewish town in Eastern Europe went around slandering the rabbi. One day, feeling bad about what he had done, he went to the rabbi to ask for forgiveness.

"Take a pillow," said the rabbi, "cut it up and shake out the feathers."

The man did as he was told and then he returned to the rabbi to get forgiveness.

"First," said the rabbi, "go collect all the feathers."

"But that's impossible," said the man. "They've gone everywhere."

"It's as impossible to repair the damage done by your words as it is to recover all the feathers," said the rabbi.

President Reagan's first Labor Secretary Raymond Donavan resigned from his post after numerous rumors that he'd done wrong. After spending more than a million dollars in legal fees to defend himself, Donovan was cleared of all charges. Coming out of the coutroom to talk to reporters, he asked: "Where do I go to get my reputation back?"

Even praising another person publically can harm. Rarely does a conversation about someone last ten minutes without something negative said.

"Did you hear that Harry has fine character?" is not typical speech.

The Talmud says that you shouldn't praise someone in front of his enemies because it may encourage them to speak up against him.

In the book of Job, God causes terrible damage to a good man by boasting about him in front of his adversary. God asks Satan: "Have you noticed my servant Job? There is no one like him on earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and shuns evil?"

Satan then brings about the death of Job's ten children, destroys his possessions and makes him sick. Even though the book ends on an up note, Job must've wished that God had kept his mouth shut.

This helps explain an enigmatic verse in Proverbs. "He who blesses his neighbor in a loud voice in the morning, it will later be thought a curse." (Proverbs 27:14)

Ex-marine Oliver Sipple saved the life of President Gerald Ford when Ford visited San Francisco in 1975. Sipple saw Sarah Jane Moore next to him, aim a gun at the president. Sipple grabbed Moore's arm and deflected her aim. The bullet missed the president and Sipple became a national hero.

Sipple made one request of reporters. "Don't publish anything about my personal life." But within days, the LA Times followed by dozens of other papers, reported that Sipple was active in gay causes in San Francisco.

A reporter visited Sipple's mother in Detroit to get her reaction. She was stunned for she didn't know her son was gay. She soon stopped speaking to him. When she died four years later, Sipple's father told him to stay away from the funeral.

Devastated by the rupture with his family, Sipple began to drink heavily and withdraw from his friends. A few years later, he was found dead in his aprtment at age 47.

The LA Times reporter who publicized Sipple's homosexuality, said, "If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn't."

Gossip also hurts the gossiper.

According to Psychiatrist Antonio Wood, when you speak ill of someone, you alienate yourself from that person. The more negative your comments, the more distant you will feel from their object. Say bad things about many people and your words will separate you from them.

While exchanging information about others is an easy though divisive way to bond, by not gossiping you must focus your conversation on yourself and the other perswon, making your talk more emotionally deep.

Be careful of people's feelings. Don't praise to someone's face another person in his field. Don't rave about other talkshow hosts or authors in front of a host or author. Don't tell your new plumber how great your former plumber was.

Most of us ignore people in wheelchairs. Talk to them as you would to anyone else. Don't concentrate on their handicap, though one or two questions aren't innapropriate.

Jewish Law says that when you visit a mourner, you should enter his house and keep quiet until he speaks. Let him set the agenda. Maybe he wants to distract himself by trivial talk or maybe he wants to vent his feelings about the death of a loved one.

Another form of hurtful speech is to tell your friend what others say about him.

"If all men knew what others say of them, there wouldn't be four friends in the world," said Blaise Pascal. And Mark Twain said, "It takes your enemy and your friend, working together, to hurt you to the heart; the one to slander you and the other to get the news to you."

Rabbi Telushkin outlines three principle reasons why we gossip. One, to reduce the status of others and thereby increase our own relative status.

"Nobody ever gossips about other people's secret virtues," said British philosopher Bertrand Russell.