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Sticks and Stones can Break My Bones, but Words can never Harm Me...?

When I was a child, there was an expression, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never harm me."

That expression was often used on the playground or school hallways as a comeback or response to bullies. It was meant to send a message back to the bully: that while someone can harm you physically with objects (by their actions), they cannot harm you verbally (by only their words).

I think the quote has some value, but in most cases, denies or ignores the reality of the power of words.

Here's what I mean:

If the expression helps you, as an individual person, grow a bit of a thicker skin -- to not to let name-calling or taunting or toxic people to "get to you," but to brush off their unhelpful comments and remain calm, confident, and focused, then fine.

However...

I think in most cases, the expression denies the reality of the power of words.

And here's what I mean by that:

  • Words matter. "The tongue has the power of life and death" (Proverbs 18:21).
  • What we say to other people -- and how we say it! -- often has have a powerful and even life-changing impact on them (for better or for worse).
  • This is especially true if you are in a position of power or have authority (real or perceived) over someone, not only because your words are amplified, but because of the assumption (whether it's true or not) that whatever you say will be followed through on by action/backed up by deeds.

Here is why this is literally a life-and-death matter:

Along with many of you, on Tuesday, I attended the overflow service of "Solidarity, Community, and Comfort" at Temple Rodef Shalom, a service held in response to the shooting at The Tree of Life Synagogue near Pittsburgh. (A poignant photo essay of that event is HERE.)

The massacre at that synagogue was fueled by anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant sentiments.

Rabbi Amy Schwartzman opened Tuesday's event by reminding us that Abraham and Sarah welcomed strangers to their tent. They didn't know who they were, but they showed them hospitality, offering them food and shelter. Those strangers turned out to be messengers from God, who told Sarah that against all odds, she would become pregnant and have a child (who would be Isaac).

Rabbi Schwartzman's point was this: the welcome of strangers brings blessings.

The welcome of strangers brings blessings. That is a fundamental Judeo-Christian principle.

"The welcome of strangers brings blessings" is also a fundamental American principle.

Words which reinforce that principle -- especially when spoken by those in power -- bring life.

Words which undermine that principle -- especially when spoken by those in power -- bring death.

Because "The tongue has the power of life and death."

So, to each of us, and to the leaders of our community and the nation: "I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live." (Deuteronomy 30:19).

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