Parshas Behar – Sticks ‘n Stones

Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.”

Rarely is a slogan so well known, yet so profoundly untrue.

As recent tragic cases of bullying and cyber-bullying have shown, words, taunts, and names can not only hurt, they can literally kill.
In the words of contemporary R&B artist Dave Barnes:
I’d rather have sticks and stones and broken bones
Than the words you say to me,
‘Cause I know bruises heal and cuts will seal
But your words beat the life from me.

Aside from the recent much-publicized tragic cases, a number of studies have shown the devastating effect that bullying has on children. Low grades, migraine headaches and stomach aches, lack of self esteem, depression and increased likelihood of alcohol and drug abuse are just some of the problems experienced by children who are bullied.

The problem is not limited to children and teens. Many adults who were bullied as children carry the trauma into adulthood, causing difficulties in their personal and professional lives. Controlling, manipulative people have the ability to break our hearts, spirits, and our capacity for meaningful relationships.

Already thousands of years ago the Torah warned us of the destructive nature of such behavior. The Rabbis explain that the verse in this week’s parsha – “You shall not aggrieve one another” – refers to harming others with speech. And our Talmudic sages even taught that some forms of hateful speech are akin to murder (see Talmud Bava Metzia 58b).

Modern commentary: texting, “tweeting,” Facebook, and MySpace are also forms of “speech”; in fact, they make hurtful words more potentially devastating than ever before.

Of course, it is important not to encourage eternal victimhood and accept the negative effects of taunting as a fait accompli. A loving, supportive home can enable a person to overcome and even grow from a hurtful experience. Once again, in the words Mr. Barnes, our R&B artist:
But what hasn’t killed me has made me strong,
So I’ll take my scars and move along.

As with most things, the place to start is in the home. Speaking kindly to one’s spouse and children sets the tone for how our children speak and gives them tools to form healthy relationships as adults. (See Talmud Bava Metzia 59a, Derech Eretz Zutta chapter 1, Misechta Kallah chapter 3 ).

We began with a famous saying that was very untrue. We will end with two sayings, far less famous, but eternally true:
Death and life are in the power of the tongue (Proverbs 18:21)
and
Who is the man who desires life, who loves days of seeing good? Guard your tongue from evil . . .Turn from evil and do good, seek peace and pursue it. (Psalms 34: 13 – 15)

Let us recognize the power of words to hurt and heal, and always utilize the power of speech, in all its forms, for good.

(For some discussions of bullying, control problems, and harmful speech, see the following books and websites: Les Parrott III, “The Control Freak,” Rabbi Abraham J Twerski MD, “Successful Relationships,” Dr. Miriam Adahan, “Sticks and Stones,” http://www.scholastic.com/resources/article/bullying/ and . http://www.education.com/reference/article/long-term-effects-bullying/ )

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