Watch Your Words

Esther Procaccia, Brooklyn, NY
Essays 2019 / Personal Growth

Throughout our lives, there have been innumerable moments in which people have made biting comments that have hurt us. We were all victims, at some point or another, of the blade of an innocent-looking string of words that have affected us in a negative fashion. Some people’s lives have been completely crushed, since the spoken word is as mighty as the power of creation itself. Because of this, awareness must be spread so as to avoid the furtherance of such detrimental misconduct. Being that speech originally was, and still is, the tool of all creation, it is profoundly influential and has far-reaching effects. Hasidism teaches that speech impacts the animate and inanimate alike, including water, stones, and air, and is, until today, an active tool of creation which can employed by avoiding slander and gossip, and consciously choosing to use kind words. Therefore, caution must be taken regarding one’s speech in order to ascertain that it will be kind and untainted.

To begin with, speech is the code of all creation, since G-d created the universe solely through His Holy speech, as it is stated, “G-d proclaimed the ten utterances and the world was created.”1 Words and letters are the raw material of creation itself , and when spoken, they have the power 2 to birth specific matter. It is written that we are created in the image of G-d ; therefore, it stands 3 to reason that our words also have enormous power.

For example, light was created as a result of G-d commanding it to be so, as He said, “Let there be light” , and light came into existence. Additionally, the words of creation are continuously 4 being said to keep creation in existence, for if G-d would stop speaking the words of creation for even one moment, the whole universe would cease to exist, as if it never had been brought into being in the first place.5

Besides for speech being a tool of creation, it also tremendously impacts the animate beings which it encounters. The following anecdote clarifies this point: a resident of Mezhibuzh had an argument with a fellow resident and, in the midst of the argument, yelled out in rage that he would tear the man to pieces as if he were a fish. Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, the famous Baal Shem Tov, instructed his students to hold hands and stand beside him with their eyes closed. He then put his hands on the shoulders of the students on either side of him. His disciples shouted in great terror, for they actually saw the man who was yelled at being dismembered before their eyes.

Clearly, this incident demonstrates how—although such an outcome could be perceived only by someone with a higher and more refined spiritual sense—the outcome is actualized whether it is witnessed by mortal man or not. Such is the power of speech—it can affect one who is blissfully unaware of its effect on him. 6

Yet another anecdote highlights the fact that the animate gets affected by speech. Once, a remorseful man was advised, in order to reach the level of accepted repentance, to rip open a down pillow and scatter the feathers about on a windy day. When the man had finished his task, he approached his rabbi, expecting to finally be forgiven; however, he was told it was simply too late—the feathers, a metaphor for his myriad sins of gossip and slander, were untraceable, with the repercussions being far too numerous to fix. The story continues with the man somehow achieving true repentance, but the lasting message is what matters: the words of man are poignant and lasting, and are spread afar to destinations unimagined by the speaker.7

It is exactly for this reason that King Solomon, the wisest of all men, said, “Even in your thought, you should not curse a king, nor in your bedrooms should you curse a wealthy man, for the bird of the heaven shall carry the voice, and the winged creature will tell the matter.”8

Not only the animate, but also the inanimate get affected by speech, as Dr. Masaru Emoto, a Japanese scientist and water researcher, proved. Emoto’s theory states that the crystal structure of water can be affected by human sound waves, after he discovered crystals forming into organized patterns when concentrated thoughts were applied to them. In 1994, this experiment resulted in the following thesis: kind words lead to visually-pleasing crystals, whereas dirty and unkind words lead to ugly crystals. For example, a positive word such as “soul” would create a shimmering, well-defined, and perfectly symmetrical crystal, whereas the phrase, “You disgust me; I’m going to kill you,” produced a rough and asymmetrical crystal.9

Just as H₂O gets influenced by human sound waves, so do stones. Since the creation of the universe, and all throughout history, the world has been waiting for a Jew to discuss Torah [and to say kind words] on it. If there are Jews who did not occupy themselves with the holy words (of Torah), in the Messianic Era, the earth will protest that humans are just as animals and should not have ever been put on this soil as it states,“for a stone shall cry from the wall, and a beam from the tree will respond.”10

Within the inanimate world, there is an essential creation that must be mentioned: air. Since the quality of one’s physical life is very much dependant on the quality of physical air one has, one can assume that in order to have a spiritually healthy life, one must have spiritually clean air. Spiritual purification is necessary in order to guard one’s spiritual health, and so, it is possible through reciting memorized Torah verses so at all times and in all places, one will be able to think and utter the holy letters of Torah while riding the subway, walking in the street or in the store.11

The same way that we have the innate capability to create with our words, we also have the unique capacity to destroy with our words, for everything has a potential for good and bad, as it 12 states, “G-d has made one corresponding to the other”; everything in the realm of holiness has its counterpart in impurity.

The ability of human speech to destroy was clearly seen in the times of the Tabernacle (during the camping of the Jews in the desert) in a physical manifestation—a skin disease called leprosy, which was the result of negative speech. Leprosy necessitated that the slanderer be kicked out of the Israelites’ camp in the desert for a week of seclusion until he was restored to health through a purification process. The consequence of isolation served to pull the slanderer out of the company of those with whom he engaged in gossip, and also, seeing as he had caused rifts in various relationships, he had to separate from society.13

The reason for the contracting of leprosy, as Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, explained, is that “this man who contracted leprosy is the so-called persona of an individual who does not see the unifying thread of divinity running through his life [that all the Jews come from the same G-dly source]… that is why he is insensitive to the social discord he creates through his gossip.”14

Hence, when one gossips, he is not in tune to the finer details of life and cannot see the vibes of mistrust and evil he is letting loose so in order to lift up to such an awareness of being, he needs spiritual refinement and must repent. A commentary cites on this matter, “the ritual purification process includes the taking of two birds, one to be set free and the other to be slaughtered to represent the excision of his negative speech through the death sentence on the bird in which the constant chatter of the bird would be no more, and to live life with only verbalizing positive speech which is represented by the bird which was kept alive”.15

According to Hasidism, the way to go about solving this ever-pressing and troubling matter is not only by spreading awareness of the severity of this matter per se, but by “motivating [oneself] to invest more energy in the unity of the Jewish people and in education [of others to speak good words]… and also polishing the world until it shines from holiness ”. This is 16 comparable to all fruit that are concealed within shells to shelter them from the elements and from hungry animals. The task at hand is to use skill and care to ensure that while attempting to remove the peel, the fruit remains intact, namely that every Jew is reached through softer, genuine words of rebuke that enter the heart for, “Words that come from the heart enter the heart” – in this way, all the Jewish people will be united through selfless love towards one another.17

In conclusion, Hasidism reveals numerous pieces of advice on the concept of the potential of speech: firstly, one should stay away from slanderous speech and gossip, and secondly, one should consciously choose to use kind words. Slander is doubly bad because by one announcing a negative assessment of someone, he has unfortunately reinforced the negative aspects of the person, and it makes the person’s task of fixing the flaw within himself difficult . On a practical 18 note, one is taught how it is within everyone’s responsibility to unify and “polish” the world by uncovering the goodness of G-d’s essence buried inside each person. With this in mind, and being that we have the power to create just like G-d, we must be certain that our power of speech is being used out well for the bettering of society’s language usage at large and particularly for each person.

1 Ethics of the Fathers 5:1
2 Tanya, Likutei Amarim, chapter twenty
3 Genesis 1:27
4 ibid. 1:3
5 Tanya, Likutei Amarim, chapter one
6 Hayom Yom, entry for 29 Tishrei
7 The Storyteller by Nissan Mindel p. 151ff
8 Ecclesiates 10:20
9 The Coming Revolution by Zamir Cohen, p. 74ff
10 Habakkuk 2:1111 Hayom Yom, entry for 11 Tevet
12 Tanya, Likutei Amarim, chapter six
13 Talmud Erchin 16b
14 Likutei Sichot, vol. 7, pp. 100ff
15 Kli Yakar, Leviticus 14:4
16 Sichos in English, vol. 44 – 17 Iyar, 1990
17 Discourse on Brotherliness Amongst Hasidim, A Letter from Rabbi Yosef Yitzhok Schneersohn, 2 Iyar, 1921
18 Likutei Sichot, vol. 15, p. 29 f