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Words Matter, By Chaim Heller, Head of School

Chaim final constant contactRecently I noticed that I am listening very carefully when I’m meeting with teachers, parents and students. I want to get it right, and for that I need to hear every word. When I respond, I try not to use a pejorative or judgmental word unless it is absolutely necessary to make my point. And even then, there must be a better way to phrase something.

Words matter.

It’s a Jewish idea.  Our tradition teaches that words have the power to create, to connect, to heal, and to destroy.  “Life and death are in the power of the tongue,” says Proverbs.

I wonder what our kids take away from the words they hear in this election campaign, and what guidance we adults can offer.

SDJA educators have a responsibility to help students navigate the world by helping them interpret it through a Jewish ethical lens.  Our task is not to protect our students from the wider world.  Rather ours is to participate fully and to provide them with insights and teachings from the tradition to make sense of it all.

The strongest ripples may not come from the campaign rhetoric, but from the behaviors that have been on display.  Words lead to actions, and objectionable words are no different. Jewish teachings on speech are impressive and among the most precious of inheritances our tradition offers us.  They deserve a more prominent place in our educational agenda.

Jewish tradition teaches us to consider:

  • Lashon Harah (Evil Speech): Speaking the truth and thereby causing harm and shame to another
  • Rechilut (Gossip) wherein we hear something hurtful and pass it along
  • Motzi Shem Rah (Libel) Spreading harmful lies
  • Avak Lesho Harah (The dust of evil speech) meaning hurtful innuendo or sideways comments, or “snark”
  • Onaat Devarim (Malicious Words) deliberately mocking and shaming someone
  • Tochechah (Rebuke) – “Love without criticism is not love,” says the Talmud.  When someone’s behavior demands criticism, we are not permitted to “mind our own business;” but neither are we permitted to publicly shame them

This isn’t limited to political candidates – it’s in our own community, even among us adults.  The distance between Jewish teaching on speech and our own behavior is vast.

After the election on Tuesday, regardless of the outcome, lets all commit to greater consciousness in watching our words, teaching our children that – in the words of Joseph Telushkin, there are Words That Hurt, and Words That Heal. Perhaps we can find the right words, the magic words that can begin Tikkun Olam, repairing a broken world. Lets all start this Wednesday morning.


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