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Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin speaks about “Words That Hurt, Words That Heal” at Adas Yeshurun Herzlia’s second annual Distinguished Lecture Series, May 9, 2019

by Penny Jones Square, May 13, 2019

I was angry with my friend;
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe;
I told it not, my wrath did grow.
—William Blake, “The Poison Tree” (qtd. in Telushkin Words 92)

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s inspiring presentation, “Words That Hurt, Words That Heal: How the Words You Use Shape Your Destiny,” at Adas Yeshurun Herzlia’s Distinguished Lecture Series was enthusiastically received by an audience of over 420 who gave him two standing ovations. Telushkin’s reputation as one of the 50 best speakers in the U.S. (according to Talk magazine) was clearly demonstrated as he immediately won his audience over with his engaging and affecting style. His lecture on the ethics of speech, replete with wisdom and insight, was delivered with humour, personal anecdotes, and ongoing questions to his audience—his own very eloquent and powerful words at once conveying and reflecting his message about the power of words. And given the current climate of incivility that is especially evident in political discourse but not restricted to it, his message had added weight.

In opening his discussion on the significance of words, their ability to harm or heal, Telushkin noted that Jews in particular “have something to teach us.” In the Jewish tradition, words are tangible and extremely powerful. The Hebrew Bible affirms the potency of words; according to Genesis 1:3, the world was spoken into being by the words of God: “God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” And humans also create with words as Telushkin pointed out, using the example of the reading experience in which we enter into and are moved by the lives of characters whom an author has created from words but who do not exist.

Telushkin insisted the power of words cannot be taken lightly. Ethical speech, civilized discourse, is crucial to avoid the dangers of its opposites—lashon ha’ra, meaning “evil-tongue” and referring to negative, mean-spirited words spoken about another, and ona’at devarim, meaning “oppressing with words” and referring to demoralizing words spoken to another. Teleushkin emphasized that even though lashon ha’ra is by definition true, words that unfairly criticize, humiliate, or inflict hurt on another should still not be spoken. The third example of forbidden speech Telushkin identified was motzi shem ra: gossip and rumours that are false and negative, including, for example, the rampant lies about the State of Israel, about its having genocidal ambitions towards the Palestinians (even though, as Telushkin noted, the Palestinian population has increased seven-fold since the creation of the State of Israel in 1948).

Telushkin also spoke of the power of words to provoke anger, which is destructive to both self and other, citing the biblical story of Michal and David, who in failing to control their words to each other, “broke the possibility” of their love. As Telushkin stated, “We are a cauldron of emotions”; therefore, if we are hurt by words, we must be careful “to restrict” our anger “to the specific incident that provoked it” in order not to inflict permanent damage. And he emphasized the efficacy of apology, in particular an apology that includes an acceptance of full responsibility for the hurt inflicted. He pointed out how the phrase, “I beg your forgiveness,” implies just such an obligation.

Telushkin then turned to the positive potential of words to heal, comfort, and even transform a person’s life—to shape their destiny. With reference to Rachel Naomi Remen’s memoir My Grandfather’s Blessings, he stressed the virtue of praise: “a person once blessed, is blessed forever.” Remen’s parents, though loving, never expressed their love, so it was only in the moments when her grandfather gave her the Sabbath blessing, preceded by his praise of something she had done that week, that she felt safe and at peace. And it was her memories of these moments that strengthened and sustained her after he died when she was only seven. Decades later, when she told her mother of her grandfather’s blessings, her mother responded, “I have blessed you every day of your life. I just never had the wisdom to say it out loud.”

In another example of the efficacy of ethical speech, Telushkin related the story of Alan Dershowitz (renowned attorney, Harvard Law School professor, and author of many books). Until the age of fifteen, Dershowitz had never had anyone call him smart; upon being told so by a camp counselor he met in the summer of his high school year, he said his life was completely changed. The counselor’s words of encouragement “affected his destiny,” for if his statement was true, Dershowitz had to figure out how to act to live up to it, and he did just that with great success.

Telushkin challenged the audience to refrain from speaking any words in a hurtful way for twenty-four hours. I would add his other advice for a return to civility: as he insists in the conclusion to his book of the same title as his lecture, “the most important thing to remember is that words that heal must be said.”

To conclude, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin reformulated a quotation from the Hassidic rebbe Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav—“If you are not going to be better tomorrow than you were today, then what need do you have for tomorrow?”—wishing the audience a “good today and an even better tomorrow.”
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