…Blessed are they who bless you, accursed are they who curse you.
Parashat Balak begins with the Israelites encamped in Moab on their journey to the Promised Land. The Moabites become fearful when they see the large number of Israelites in their midst. Balak, son of the King of Moab, enlists the help of Balaam, who is from a neighboring nation, and asks him to "put a curse on this people for me…" (Numbers 22:6) Balaam agrees to help Balak, and in the end, God turns Balaam's words from a curse into a blessing for the Israelites. In referring to the Israelites, Balak says, "Blessed are they who bless you, accursed are they who curse you." (Numbers 24:9) This statement refers not only to those who will be blessed or cursed; it also refers to those people doing the blessing and cursing because the words that they choose to speak to others will determine whether they, too, will be blessed or cursed.
Clearly, words are a powerful instrument in the Torah, our most cherished book of words. To this day, words are still one of the most powerful tools we have. There is a Chasidic tale that illustrates the importance of using words carefully. In this story, a man tells malicious lies about his rabbi. After realizing the wrong he has perpetrated on his rabbi, he feels remorseful. He goes to the rabbi, begs his forgiveness and asks what he can do to make amends. The rabbi tells him to take a feather pillow, slice it open and allow the feathers to be scattered about by the wind. After completing the task, the man returns to the rabbi, who tells him now to go and retrieve the feathers. The moral of the story is that damage done by words can be so vast and far reaching that you may not be able to correct the wrong you have done by speaking poorly of others.
The importance of not speaking slanderously of others is important enough to have an entire commandment dedicated to it. The ninth commandment says: Thou shalt not bear false witness against others. In fact, the Talmud teaches us that the tongue is such a dangerous instrument that it must be concealed behind the mouth and teeth in order to prevent it from being used improperly.
But wait a minute! What about the old saying, "Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me?" How many times did you hear that familiar phrase growing up? Although this little jingle is used as a way to soften the hurt we might feel when others speak ill of us, the reality is that words do indeed have the power to cut right to our core, reduce us to tears, cause us to feel bad, and possibly cause irreversible damage to our reputation, no matter our age.
As parents, we have the responsibility to model behavior for our children that will help them understand the importance of words. Children do not blink; they are excellent listeners and skilled mimics. They learn by watching and imitating the adults in their lives. Thus, the language we use to speak about other people can have a deep and long-lasting effect on our children, no matter if we are referring to our own family members, people within our community or strangers we have as yet to meet. The way in which we communicate our beliefs about others will influence the way our children look at the world and how they ultimately will use words to reflect their own beliefs.
When one speaks poorly of another, in Hebrew it is referred to as lashon hara, meaning "evil tongue." It is an important Jewish value to measure our words and make certain we don't use them to hurt others. Tempting though it might be to gossip or say things about others, we cannot know the damage we may be causing, and we never may be able to repair that damage. If we work towards having good intentions and reflect this in our words and behaviors, then we will move toward being able to integrate this value into our own lives and the lives of our children.
Questions and Ideas for Parents:
- Can you think of an instance in which you spoke ill of someone and later wished that you hadn't said anything?
- Have you ever spoken of someone in a way that positively affected his or her life, his or her reputation?
- What do you think you would say to your child if he or she were "gossiping" about a friend or classmate?
Questions for Children:
- Have you ever told a lie about someone? Do you know why you told that lie?
- How does it make you feel when you tell someone that you like something they did?
- Do you have rules in your classroom or your home for how to talk about people or to people?
Pages 1173-1194 in The Torah: A Modern Commentary Revised Edition, by W. Gunther Plaut.