A Guide to Teshuvah: Language

Jewish ritual By Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg 22nd Sep 2022

‘Take with you words,’ says Hosea, teaching us to offer each other words of apology and conciliation. (14:3) That’s because it’s so often through what we say that we hurt one another. No other form of sin is mentioned so many times in our confessional prayers on Yom Kippur:

Dibbarnu dofi: we have spoken destructively.
Al chet: for the sin we’ve committed with what’s come out of our lips, with the words of our mouths, through stupid things we’ve said, through mockery and slander.

Had the authors of our prayers known how social media enable us to pour hatred into the ether, they’d have had even more to say. They can be a great good, enabling online communication, community and solidarity. But twitter and the like also make word-rage easy; depersonalising and disinhibiting communication since we don’t have to face those against whom we direct our contempt. We don’t have to listen, either before or after we click out our message. The need for relationship and dialogue is circumvented, anger and fears perpetuated. Why were the followers of Hillel the majority, asks the Talmud: because they listened to the views of their opponents.

‘Guard your tongue from evil,’ is the essence of Jewish speech ethics. The Talmud stresses that even if we have ‘only upset them with words,’ we must apologise to those we have hurt. One of the greatest compliments one can pay another person is that ‘they never had a bad word to say about anyone.’ The old adage is often good advice: ‘If you can’t think of anything good to speak, say nothing.

But most of us do sometimes speak rashly, often from pain. All of us say hurtful things unintentionally. Often, it’s only afterwards that we realise their implications. We’ve missed someone out; we’ve thoughtlessly struck them in the very place where they feel most vulnerable. If we can make amends, we should. As Proverbs says, ‘A gentle response dissipates anger.’ If we show contrition our apology will usually be accepted, especially if we offer it at once and from the heart. ‘I’m sorry’ may be the most important sentence in any relationship.

We can go further than avoiding speaking hurtfully. The Bible has a beautiful phrase ledabber al lev, to speak to the heart, to offer words of comfort. We are gifted with language to use it for good. Bernard Kops described how he was walking with his father when a painter shouted antisemitic abuse from the top of his ladder. Instead of retaliating, his father quietly asked the man what had upset him; they finished up taking him home to tea. Our society would be closer and kinder if we could listen to the pain or resentment which so often lies behind anger. Then perhaps our words, rather than exacerbating wounds, could bring them healing.

Christie Watson titled her book about nursing The Language of Kindness. In a recent panel at our synagogue, she said ‘History will judge us for our compassion.’ Her words are reminiscent of the praise from Proverbs, widely quoted in honour of our late Queen Elizabeth: Torat hesed al leshonah, the Torah of lovingkindness is on her tongue.

That should be our ideal.

Read the rest of the series:

Read the rest of the series:

  1. Injustice
  2. Environment
  3. With Ourselves
  4. With Each Other
  5. With God

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