But there’s so much more to words than just entertainment. As the number-one thing that differentiates us from the world’s other living creatures, words are the birthright of every human being. How we choose to use them, though, is completely up to us.
Words can be used to give form to the inchoate dramas of the inner life, as in poetry or diary-writing. They can be used to uplift and inspire, through any medium from an eloquent essay to a pithy refrigerator magnet. Certain words are wrapped in cotton and hidden away in our memories, cherished gems that we unearth at special moments: a marriage proposal, a baby’s first word, a longed-for breakthrough or the transmission of some wonderful news. Sad memories, too, trail words like a sorrowful kite’s-tail. In fact, any memory that’s linked to a powerful emotion will usually be accompanied by words that remain etched deeply in our hearts.
For example, I’ll never forget the words that were used to accept my very first book, Shira’s Summer, for publication. In a darker vein, I can replay, word for word, the scene in which I learned of my beloved father’s petirah. Certain conversations, both beautiful and painful, linger on in memory. Words have incredible staying power.
This amazing gift can, of course, be misused. Think lashon hora, gossip and slander, and onoas devorim, hurting others with our speech. A famous adage claims that, though sticks and stones can shatter bones, words are perfectly harmless. I disagree. It’s pretty obvious that words are some of the most lethal weapons around.
Recently, I was learning the book Battle Plans with my partner-in-Torah when we came across a scenario in which someone perpetrated a grievous wrong on someone else. The point of the lesson was to rise above our immediate desire to lash out verbally at the person who harmed us.
Anxiously, my learning partner asked, “But it’s okay to think it, right?”
I assured her that angry thoughts are not forbidden, though the ultimate goal is to eradicate those from our hearts as well. Negative words expressed into the world pose an enormous problem, but unspoken words that are allowed to fester and take root inside us are a problem too. Unfortunately, one usually leads, in a fairly straight line, to the other.
There’s no question that words must sometimes be stifled, suppressed, tamped down for the sake of peace. As an inveterate chatter-box, I’ve had to learn (and am still learning!) to stop before I make a comment. To ask myself, “Is what I’m about to say really necessary?” If there’s even a chance that a thoughtless remark may inadvertently wound someone else, then discretion is definitely the better part of valor.
And even if the remark is neutral, is it always necessary? Why fill the world with useless words and idle chatter? If we get into the habit of treating our words as if they were diamonds to be carefully examined, scrupulously cut and lovingly polished, then we will never produce a single one that is anything except a joy to the listener’s ear.
How do I love words? Let me count the ways. Words have flavors. They can be sweet or acid, pungent or bland. They can be cold as an unheated car on a winter morning, chilling their recipient and making her feel small and unloved. Or they can be as warm as a bowl of rich, chunky soup, heartening and life-giving. It all depends on the temperature of the heart from which the words emanate…
Words can be like Lego pieces, carefully building up an argument, brick by brick. Or they can be like dandelion fluff, carelessly flying away on the slightest wind, trivial on its own, but deadly in its capacity to replicate itself. If we’re not watchful, a beautiful lawn can be overrun by armies of them. One dandelion is harmless and even pretty. Thousands of them are an ugly scar on the landscape, choking the life out of the lush, green grass in which it’s taken root.
Words can be like stars. On a cloudless night, that multitudinous array of tiny, distant worlds join forces to illuminate our world. Each one alone is too far away to give much light, but together they shine nearly as brightly as the moon. Whenever I read a perfectly-expressed piece of prose, I fall under the spell of this kind of verbal starlight. Each sentence adds its special light, its shining wisdom, to the one before… until I am dazzled.
Words can be like leaves in the woods, rustling secretly all around like a thousand whispering lips. Whispers can be sweet; more often, they are cruel. Unflattering stories are whispered into willing ears. Cynical mockery is murmured in a sneering undertone. A sarcastic insight, mumbled almost under the speaker’s breath, will elicit loud laughter. Whispers are exclusionary; they make others, not privy to the secret, feel left out. That which we are unwilling to speak out loud is better left unsaid.
The words of our tefillah rise up like sparks from a bonfire. Prayers that emanate from a broken heart fly straight to the Throne of Glory like tongues of divine flame. Words are the tools of connection, not only between people but between us and our Creator. The familiar words in the siddur have the uncanny power to let us tap into endless channels of blessing. Not to recognize that awesome power is to ignore an invitation issued straight from the King. The palace is waiting just ahead. All we need to get in is to turn a key in a door that stands ever-ready to be opened. The key: the words of our prayer.
And then there are words like sharp little thumbtacks strewed all over the floor, a trap for the unwary. You step into a room trustingly, on bare feet, and wham! The blood starts to flow. Some people, sadly, have made an art out of the kind of small, stinging comments that seem so light-hearted, yet can hurt so much. Others do it artlessly, without thinking much at all, which makes the hurt somehow even worse.
Moving on along the destruction spectrum, words can be like artillery shells, used to bludgeon another into fear, submission and a whimpering, crumbling ego. Like heat-seeking missiles, some words home right in on a person’s most vulnerable places and smash them. Anger will sometimes blind us to the point where even a normally loving person can become unrecognizable to himself, turning his words into deadly weapons, another good reason to do our utmost to curtail this dangerous middah. When it comes to the people we love, the nuclear option is simply not in the cards.
Each of us has learned the power of words on our own psyches. We’ve all felt hurt, joy, fear, love, pain and pleasure, annoyance and comfort, through words that have been directed at us. The next step is to recognize the power of our own words over others.
A pleasant exchange with someone you know can make her day; conversely, a sour one can break it. All it takes is a little forethought, and a lot of care in choosing our words. We can pour ice water down people’s backs, or shower them with sunbeams. Hashem, who gave us these diamonds, has also given us the ability to be astute diamond-cutters. It’s up to us.