June 19, 2014

60 Days of Growth – Avoid “Four Letter Words” (Day 51)

On a recent camping trip with my students they challenged me to find a Torah message with the next song that came up on the playlist. I accepted.

Once I heard the melancholy guitar rift of “Friend is a Four Letter Word” come on, I knew it would be a Cake walk (pun intended).

You see, the chorus (and most of the whole song) go as follows:

To me
Coming from you
Friend is a four letter word
End is the only part of the word

Boy, oh, boy, I don’t even have to dig to find some beautiful Torah there!

In Judaism we have a concept called onat dvarim – oppressing someone with one’s words – which is entirely forbidden. The Torah tells us “ וְלֹא תוֹנוּ אִישׁ אֶת-עֲמִיתוֹ – and you should not oppress one another” and Rashi comment on the spot “כאן הזהיר על אונאת דברים, שלא יקניט איש את חברו – here we are warned against oppressing one another with our words, that a person should not tease his friend”. We discussed this concept at length on Day 19 but today I want to add something new and very important.

shutterstock_38613382We as a people (or at least should) have gone to great lengths to ensure that we do not hurt each other with our words. Although childhood rhymes may have indicated otherwise, sticks and stones will break your bones…and so will words. Words can seriously hurt and we have to be very careful what we say.

But what about the classic excuse, “But, I didn’t mean it!”? It doesn’t hold water, not at all. You see, in Judaism it isn’t just about what you do but the ramifications of your actions. Generally in Jewish law, if you do something which you thought was permitted but turns out to be forbidden you are pretty much off the hook (it is sort of complicated, but for the purposes of today’s mission, let’s go with it) but that is only in a case where the party being offended is God. He can take it. However if the party being offended is another person, there is no such luck. If you accidentally kill someone, even if you absolutely didn’t mean it, you still have to go into exile and pay a price. This is because when we hurt another person out intentions don’t matter, only the repercussions.

The same is true with words. Just because the word ‘friend’ is in most contexts a good thing, we need to be sensitive that in certain contexts and to certain people it can be as bad as a “four letter word”. So remember it isn’t just about what you say or even what you mean, but how others will be affected by it. Keep this in mind when you interact with others, always put yourself in their shoes and think actively about how your words and actions may impact or be taken by another because sometime even “friend is a four letter word.”

Today’s Jewish mission is to be conscience of all those “four letter words” that might seem fine to you, but depending on the person or place might cause someone else pain. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes and think about the repercussions of your words, not just the intention.