The Torah teaches us many life lessons, many of them are big things, like “honor your mother and father” or “don’t kill” but there are also some, seemingly, small lessons the Torah has to teach us about our day-to-day actions. Now, as I said, these things are only seemingly small, in reality they are HUGE. Let’s look at one that I really like, the Torah tells us, “וְלֹא תוֹנוּ אִישׁ אֶת-עֲמִיתוֹ, וְיָרֵאתָ מֵאֱלֹהֶיךָ: כִּי אֲנִי יְהוָה, אֱלֹהֵיכֶם – A person should not oppress another person, and you should be in awe of your Source, because I am God, the Source of everything.” Our sages explain that this line is talking about a special instruction from the Torah, one that is often overlooked even though it is one of the biggest in the whole Torah, it is called, Ona’at Devarim – Oppression with words. What does this mean? This means that a person should not use their words to oppress another person. How can you oppress another person with words? Any time one person says something to another person that makes the second person feel small, feel sad, feel like the air was let out of them, that is oppression.
Not only is being just plain mean and hurtful included in this concept, but using your words to indirectly make someone feel small, even if it is unintentional, is included. For example, a person rushes in the room to tell you some amazing news, they start, “Hey! Guess what? Josh just…” and you cut them off, “got that girl’s number…yeah, I just saw his Facebook status.” That is Ona’at Devarim, because you just made that person feel small, like there news was meaningless to you. Another example, a person runs into you at the mall and they say, “Did you hear about Melissa, her…” and you cut them off, “grandfather passed away, yeah I heard.” BAM! You just let the air out of what they had to say, made their bad news not as important. The final example is where the title of this post comes from, imagine a friend is telling you a joke, “Hey, what did one snowman say to the other?” and instead of saying, “What?” you respond, “It smells like carrots! I just heard that one!” You just stole the punchline of his joke, you used your words to make him feel more insignificant.
My Rabbi, Rav Avigdor Neventzahl, from the Old City of Jerusalem added an extra piece to this concept,
[…W]e are commanded “when you make a sale to your fellow or make a purchase from the hand of your fellow do not aggrieve one another” (Vayikra 25:14) it is forbidden to behave deceitfully when buying or selling to another. A few psukim later the Torah tells us “each of you shall not aggrieve his fellow” (Vayikra 25:17). Chazal explain that the former pasuk refers to the prohibition of “onaat mammon” (dishonesty in monetary matters), while the latter pasuk refers to “onaat devarim” (causing another verbal pain – see Baba Metzia 58b). Chazal add: “verbal wronging is a greater sin than monetary wronging, for concerning this it is stated: ‘and you shall fear G-d’, whereas concerning this it is not stated ‘and you shall fear G-d’” (Baba Metzia 58b). We see that causing pain to another is a worse offense than cheating him monetarily. I am not advocating any form of leniency regarding cheating but causing another pain is worse.
You see, people will often look at this as being a small thing that the Torah is teaching us, but really it is HUGE!
So, today’s Jewish Mission is, don’t use your words to hurt, belittle or embarrass someone else. This includes stealing the punchline.