(Torah Portion Tazria/Metzorah) The Consequence of the Spoken Word
We are all aware of the ill effects of slander, bad mouthing, defaming, insulting, spreading rumors, and name-calling, and that they can devastate people’s lives.
The Torah demands that we be sensitive to the feelings of others and prohibits all of the above – even when it is true! In fact, both Torah portions we read this week discuss certain blemishes called Tzoraas that primarily appeared due to the use of forbidden speech.
Detrimental and harmful words can have more far reaching effects than a sword or gun. The gun can shoot only a specific distance, while malicious words can travel thousands of miles to billions of people, causing devastating and destructive consequences and psychological doom to a person or people in a matter of seconds.
In the Book of Proverbs, King Solomon writes, “Life and death are held in the grip of the tongue.” Our Sages focus on the physiological changes to a person’s face upon being embarrassed. Initially, the person’s face turns white, indicating that significant blood had rushed out of his head. Then when the blood rushes back, his face turns red. “When a person turns white he experiences a touch of death!”
It is interesting that King Solomon associates death with profaned speech, because on face value there is a great distinction between a state of actual death and ‘death’ that comes as a result of being the target of wrongful speech. Physical death is eternal, while ‘death’ by the tongue has its boundaries; with expressions of remorse, apologies, time, or the mere course of forgetfulness, one can certainly rebound and recover and live productively. We may wonder, what eternal damage does harmful speech have on a person?
I recently read an article* titled, “You make me sick!” written by Rabbi Dr. Dovid Fox, a forensic and clinical psychologist in Beverly Hills. He writes that physical pain parallels emotional hurt, rejection and fright insofar as they both trigger pain.
Dr. Fox points out: “Think of the metaphors we employ when we refer to hurt feelings. It is as if we are experiencing bodily pain or discomfort, ‘Stop being a pain in the neck.’ ‘I can’t stomach this.’ ‘He makes me nauseous.’ ‘It broke his heart.’
“In fact, a growing body of research demonstrates that “social pain” – the sensation of hurt that can follow an episode of rejection, exclusion or loss – activates some of the same brain circuitry that is involved when the body is injured or in pain. Just as the brain alerts us to react or run from harmful things, such as touching something hot or sharp, the brain also seems to warn us to avoid behaviors or people that may damage our emotional well being.”
“Research has identified a significant and unexpected difference between brain activity associated with physical pain and social pain, respectively. When our bodies hurt, and we recover or heal from the injury, we may reminisce about our former distress, yet those memories do not elicit actual pain. Thinking about an old injury or illness may be unpleasant, but it doesn’t hurt.”
“In contrast, when we have suffered from mistreatment by others, and amends have been made or time has passed, reminiscing about the old humiliation or alienation actually triggers those same pain circuits in the brain.”
“This means that long after the distressing event is over, the mind will still generate remnants of the pain incurred, resulting in renewed hurt feelings and sensations of pain.”
Perhaps this is the meaning of ‘death’ that sticks with a person throughout his life due to the harm of spoken words.
Rabbi Dr. Fox concludes, “Cruel words and tactless behavior have hurtful consequences. Being mindful of this will sensitize us to the enduring damage we can inflict when we are inconsiderate of the feelings of others, and hopefully lead us to monitor our words and our references to and about others.”
If hurtful words carry such a lifelong disturbing burden, consider how a person’s entire existence can be affected positively by the infusion of life, energy, joy, happiness, pleasure and delight through constructive and optimistic words.
Wishing you a restful, peaceful
and inspirational Shabbos!
Rabbi Dovid Saks