Words Matter

Why are we so quick to speak harmful words, and yet so reluctant or reserved in expressions of love and admiration?

Our words have more impact than we realize, both on those we are addressing and on ourselves.
Our words have more impact than we realize, both on those we are addressing and on ourselves. Photo: Gershon Elinson/Flash90

A good friend of mine passed away last week without warning. Hanan Lukatz was a much-loved Messianic Jewish leader and pioneer for the movement here in Israel for over 40 years. With the flood of condolences, words of praise and appreciation that continue to pour out from Messianic Jewish leaders, I wondered.

Shouldn’t this heartfelt outpouring of appreciation be shared while he is alive? Why do we wait until our loved ones have passed away before telling them of our love and appreciation?

I’m not sure I have an answer to that question, but it made me think that there is so much we could do for one another with our words, and maybe a lot less as well.

That’s a lesson we are taught in synagogue on Passover where we are reminded to ”remember Miriam on the journey after you came out of Egypt” (Dt. 24:9).

The story you may recall tells of when Miriam, Moses’ older sister, questioned her younger brother and was immediately struck with a defiling disease that turned her skin white. What did Miriam say that called down such wrath?

Not that much really. Miriam did not condemn her brother Moses. She questioned his marriage to an Ethiopian woman, which can be rather typical in most families, especially big sisters wanting to protect their little brother. She then went on to mistakenly compare Moses to other prophets, which to be sure was a misguided error. Moses had “seen” God and was to become a leader of the Jewish nation far more than any prophet.

Still, these were early days “on the journey after you came out of Egypt,” and let’s not forget that Miriam had risked her life to save baby Moses who was raised on his big sister’s lap. The extraordinarily punishment she suffers, without opportunity to explain or correct, seems extreme.

The rabbis concluded that the only way to understand “Remember Miriam” is to accept just how important our words are. That even a momentary slip of the tongue in a moment of anger, disappointment or heated discussion can lead to dire straits.

“A fool’s mouth is his ruin, and his lips are a snare to his soul.” (Prov 18:6-8)

When words lead to trouble we say they cast us into “kaf hakelah” – literally “the hollow of a sling.” We are sent into a never-ending ping-pong tossed in and out of situations we never imagined. Our words, you see, don’t just stir a reaction in the person we are talking too, they impact us as well.

Remember Miriam. Remember too that part of the punishment of this skin whitening disease was that she had to be put into isolation far from family and friends so that the blight would not spread to others. It is imperative to separate out anyone who uses the tongue for evil, which can easily bring down the entire community. In the end, Moses interceded for his elder sister, and she was only confined for seven days (“to remove the shame”) after which she could return to the camp.

In Hebrew we have an expression for inappropriate speech, whether it be foul mouthed thoughtlessness or downright evil, called “Lashon hara,” literally, “an evil tongue.” As we said, lashon hara has two consequences: it damages the person who hears the words, but it also brings trouble for the person who says bad, harmful things. Remember Miriam.

Speech may be an external function sending sound bites outward, but the words we speak reflect back inwardly into the very depths of our soul and spirit.

“The words of a gossip are like choice morsels that go down into the inmost being.” (Prov 18:6-8)

We might say that sometimes silence is health for the body.

The way in which callous words find way to our tongue and turn around and injure us is exemplified in the disease that afflicted Miriam. Scripture explains that this blight can first appear at home on the walls of your house. When it is not cleaned up right away, or it has been allowed to soak in so deep that it cannot be cleaned, the whole wall must be torn down. If the rot is left to grow, the blight spreads and attaches itself to the clothes of all those living in the house, and if their clothing is not cleaned or burnt, the defilement spreads to the skin and the whole person, and anyone who touches him, becomes “unclean.”

Negative speech may just be a momentary outburst and can be easily “cleaned up” with humility and a few corrective words in the beginning. At this point it can’t continue to infect the talebearer. However, if there is no acknowledgement, or no attempt to correct and “cleanse” the misspoken words, but they are allowed to soak in, they take their toll and the blight rots away at our inner being, turning us ultimately into an unclean “leper.”

Remember Miriam, but don’t forget…

In the same way, our words can stir emotions of love and feelings of companionship in those we care about, and also in ourselves.

In a fascinating verse the Prophet Jeremiah explains how God’s heart is stirred with compassion towards His loved ones when He declares His love out loud.

“Is Ephraim (Israel) my dear son? Is he a darling child? Indeed, as often as I’ve spoken about him, I surely remember him and therefore I deeply yearn for him. I’ll surely have great compassion on him,” declares the LORD. (Jeremiah 31:20)

Kind and loving words can ignite love’s passions within us and have a profound impact on our loved ones.

I still do not understand why we don’t express our love and support more honestly and openly, but I have made a fresh commitment this Passover to remember Miriam, clean up and burn the old leaven out of our home, including the crumbs that fall between the cracks, and spread the love around, before it’s too late.

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