From a very young age, I learned to defend myself against the teasing and taunting of any one of my six siblings with the same defense as so many of us: "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me!"
But, looking back on it, I wonder if I ever really believed that this was true. After all, this comeback was always accompanied by another very indignant, yet equally childlike response -- one finger in each ear and a very loud "I can't hear you!"
In reality, as children, we intuit that which is sometimes so hard to remember -- words can harm. Words do matter.
This week's Torah portion also addresses the power of words. As we begin reading the fifth and final book of the Torah, Devarim --(words) or Deuteronomy, the Torah records "Eileh hadevarim -- These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel." So begins Moses' final speeches to the Israelites. Knowing that his life is coming to an end, Moses, who when he first met God, said of himself "I am not a man of words," is now transformed into the great orator whose words retrace the Israelite history and urge the people to obey God's Torah. Knowing that the Israelites are on the brink of a whole new chapter of their individual and collective development, Moses realizes that he must maintain a delicate balance between admonishing the people for their past behavior and urging them forward -- closer to the fulfillment of the divine purpose, and to God specifically. Anything else could well have destroyed the entire people of Israel and the entire enterprise to which he had devoted his life.
Like Moses, our devarim, our words, also have the power to create or to devastate. With our words, we can afflict, or we can love. In a moment of anger and passion, it is easy and common to lash out against those whom we love, saying things we don't mean to say, using words that cannot be taken back. Despite all the promises from both sides, and all the genuine attempts to forget the words that have been said, often the damage is already done, and the pain that is inflicted cannot be reversed. Feelings are hurt, and relationships damaged -- all because of the words that are said.
The rabbis understood this well, comparing the tongue (words) to an arrow. The rabbis, in the Midrash Tehilim, a rabbinic interpretation of the Book of Psalms, suggest that words as arrows are far worse than one who uses his own hands to kill another. Why? "Because if the would-be killer takes his sword in hand to kill another, and the other then pleads with him and begs for mercy, the would-be slayer can change his mind and return his sword to his sheath. But, once the would-be killer has shot and let fly an arrow, it cannot be brought back even if he wants to do so." Once words are said, they cannot be retracted, retrieved or erased.
But, equal to the power of words to destroy, is the power they have to build relationships and to make us partners in God's creation. What a different power words have when we use them to tell those around us how very special they are, how important they are, to say "I love you."
These are the types of words to which the Book of Proverbs refers when it says, "Pleasant words are as a honeycomb, sweet to the soul, and health to the bones." These are the words that nourish and sustain, that reinforce a sense of purpose and worth. These are words that we don't want, or need, to retract. These are the words that each of us has the power to say and that all of us need to hear.