Parshat Mishpatim contains two laws related to the child-parent relationship (21:15, 17)
וּמַכֵּ֥ה אָבִ֛יו וְאִמּ֖וֹ מ֥וֹת יוּמָֽת
And one who strikes his father or his mother shall surely be put to death.
וּמְקַלֵּ֥ל אָבִ֛יו וְאִמּ֖וֹ מ֥וֹת יוּמָֽת:
And one who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death.
The Torah here prescribes the same punishment for verbal abuse at it does for physical abuse. Moreover although both crimes are punishable by death, the type of death is different for each. The punishment for striking a parent is chenek, strangulation. The punishment for verbal abuse is sekilah, stoning, which is the most severe form of death penalty of the four types found in the Torah.
The Torah is teaching us that verbal abuse is worse in some ways than physical abuse. Whereas violence is an attack on a person’s body, verbal abuse always impacts the victim’s heart, mind, and soul. As the Vilna Gaon puts it in his commentary to Mishlei, verbal insults can “penetrate into the innermost recesses”. Emotions do not heal as quickly as the body can. The old adage is therefore wrong. Not only can names indeed hurt us, but they can even hurt us worse than the physical damage wrought by sticks and stones.
This past week I was a guest at the Kolot luncheon, a project of the Jewish Family Service of Broward County’s domestic abuse program. At that event I learned that 1 in 3 women and 1 of 4 men have been a victim of physical violence by an intimate partner. Close to half of all women and men experience at least one type of psychologically aggressive behavior, often in the form of verbal abuse, in the course of their relationships.
People often don’t appreciate the power of their words nor the potential pain that can be caused by hurtful words. We are also often less careful with our words when directed at those with whom we are the closest (spouses, children, family, friends). The combination of these factors can lead to our words being used as weapons against others, instead of a powerful vehicle to express positive feelings, encouragement, and healing.
Some of our worst memories do not involve what someone has done to us, but rather what has been said. There are certain words and certain phrases that are almost impossible to take back. You can say “I love you” thousands of times. But it only takes one “I hate you” to make one question if the love was ever there.
Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky (The Steipler Gaon) said there are two ways to be better than the next person. One way is to grow, to toil and work hard to bring out your own potential. If the other person does not follow a similar course of action, then you will surge ahead in comparison to someone else. The other way is to dig a hole and push the other person down. Automatically, you feel better and taller. Obviously we should follow the first way.
We must be careful with our words. Think before you speak, instead of having to apologize after the wrong words come out. Our words are powerful. They can be used as weapons and hurt others worse than sticks and stones. We must never use words in hurtful ways, especially towards those with whom we are closest. Think about how your words will be received by the other person, and not just how you intend your words to be received or how you think you would react to the same words. Since words can be a source of much hurt, then it must be that words can also be a great source (and an even greater source) of positivity.