Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, June 24, 2017
Rabbi Michael Friedland
Can words kill? According to the Talmud (BM 58b) “Whoever publicly shames his neighbor, it is as if he shed blood”. On gossip, the Jerusalem Talmud taught that the gossiper stands in Syria and kills in Rome. (Peah 1:1)
This week a decision was handed down in a controversial case that was almost a real life example of the Talmudic teaching.
The case was not gossip but two mentally troubled teenagers, who dated mostly via text messages, with the girlfriend in her home encouraging her suicidal boyfriend sitting in a Wal-Mart parking lot to finish his planned suicide.
Michelle Carter, 17 at the time of her crime, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for urging her depressed 18-year-old boyfriend, Conrad Roy III, to kill himself. Mr. Roy had flirted with the idea for weeks, and Ms. Carter — after initially telling him to seek counseling — seemed to warm to the idea, consistently egging him on via text: “The time is right and you’re ready, you just need to do it! You can’t keep living this way. You just need to do it like you did last time and not think about it and just do it babe.” What the judge in the case said determined her criminal act was ultimately one phone call. Just as Conrad Roy stepped out of the truck, he had filled with lethal fumes, due to last minute doubts about suicide, Ms. Carter told him to get back in the cab and then listened to him die without trying to help him.
The texter stands in a small town in Southeast Massachusetts and a person dies in a Wal-Mart parking lot.
The case is controversial from a legal standpoint. While all agree that what Ms. Carter did was reprehensible, it is not clear that she committed a criminal act. Robby Soave, an editor at Reason magazine, writing in the New York Times, stated, “speech that is reckless, hateful and ill-willed nevertheless enjoys First Amendment protection. While the Supreme Court has carved out narrowly tailored exceptions for literal threats of violence and incitement to lawless action, telling someone they should kill themselves is not the same as holding a gun to their head and pulling the trigger.”
Other legal scholars expressed concern about the ramifications of such a decision. David Rossman, a professor of law at Boston University, wrote that the implications of this decision are very unclear, “Do doctors advising patients about end-of-life decisions have to worry about criminal prosecution if a patient stops taking medicine and dies as a result? Will family members have to urge their terminal relatives to do everything in their power to stay alive, lest they be prosecuted on the same theory as Carter’s?
The legal ramifications of this decision will be debated for a long while but the moral issue is more clear. Words are powerful and if used nefariously and duplicitously they can cause tremendous damage.
This week’s Torah portion open with a elision – that is the opening sentence is missing an object. “Now Korah, son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi, took, along with Dathan and Abiram sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth — descendants of Reuben. And they rose up before Moses. The Tanchuma states that the words “and he took” only refer to using seductive words to draw others to him. He took words and seduced other leaders in the community to rebel openly against Moses.
“For all the community are holy, all of them,” pronounced Korah”, and the LORD is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the LORD’s congregation?” This was unsettling because the community, true, had been told that “You shall be holy for I the Lord your God am holy”. But they were not intrinsically holy, God was not always to be in their midst, Moses and Aaron did not raise themselves above the congregation, they were ordered to lead by God. Yet this insidious insinuation developed legs and soon the community was standing against Moses and Aaron. Only by dint of Divine intervention were they saved. And even after their accusers were punished, the people blamed Moses!
Words are powerful. They can create and they can destroy.
The world was created in words. The Torah teaches us that the entire world was created in 10 statements over the seven days. When the people were liberated from Egypt, they were led to Sinai where the sacred Torah with its wisdom and guidelines, its ethics and legal teachings were given to the people that they might find meaning and purpose in life – through words, Aseret Hadibrot – literally the Ten Words most famously.
Words could also be destructive. Michal was King David’s wife before he was king. She cemented his ties to the court of King Saul for she was Saul’s daughter. But they grew apart. After David was made king and chose to bring the ark of the Covenant to his new capital of Jerusalem, he led the way in dancing. She bitterly attacked him, “Didn’t the king of Israel do himself honor today- exposing himself …as if one of the riffraff might expose himself!” David’s response was even more cutting, “That’s right. I danced before the Lord Who chose me instead of your father and all his family.” The remark was extremely cruel since David and Saul had become bitter enemies before Saul was killed in war with three of his sons. The Bible then records “To her dying day Michal, daughter of Saul, had no children.” Why record her childlessness at this point? Joseph Telushkin suggests that perhaps because of this brutal exchange never again could they be intimate with each other.
Words spoken directly to each other can hurt or can heal. Yet in our contemporary age of social media a new danger to the seductive power of words is to be found in Facebook and twitter and texting. While many find opportunities for positive social interaction by using them, they are also vehicles that allow people to express hate, vituperation, and anger without facing the recipients. By adding that additional layer of distance between conversants, the immediate reaction to hurtful words and comments is missed. This enables people to write and express very hurtful and damaging statements such as what Michelle Carter did. Could Michelle have so easily encouraged Connor Roy to get back into the car if she had been standing next to him?
And sadly this misuse of words, this destructive use of distance language starts at the top. We have a President who seems unable to control his impulses. He has been caught passing along misinformation, inveighing against imaginary enemies, promoting untruths, and deviating from his own administrations policy statements sewing confusion. The reason this is so significant is that the president of the United States is a role model for American citizens and for America in the world. His use or misuse of language permeates the citizenry as to what is acceptable or not.
Joseph Telushkin quotes psychiatrist Antonio Wood that when a person employs unfair speech against another, it is damaging to the speaker as well, it is alienating from humanity. The more negative the comments the more distant one feels, thus one who speaks unfairly of many people, comes to distance and alienate himself or herself from many individuals. Alienation leads to depression and other unhealthy behaviors.
And non-facial, indirect, instantaneous distance communications alienates us even more, for we never have to see or know how the impact of the verbal blow affects the other. Twitter and Facebook posts conceal the recipient, like the army soldier who pushes a button so a drone thousands of miles away destroys a settlement without knowing who or what has been killed, a vicious tweet or post can destroy without ever affecting the writer.
Dr. Stephen Marmera psychiatrist recommended in Telushkin’s book Words that Hurt Words that Heal that in dealing with anger we should think in terms of layers of control:
Control of our initial reaction; Control of our initial response; control of our initial reaction to the other’s response; Control of our succeeding reactions.
How much the more so is this true in the age of twitter and Facebook! Harold Kushner wrote, “Only God can give us credit for the angry words we did not speak.” How many acts of destructiveness could be averted if we looked for divine approval before we send any tweet or post or text?
Rabbi Haim of Volozhin was a great scholar and educator, the leading student of the great Jewish sage, the Eliyahu ben Shlomo, the Gaon of Vilna. In his seminal work, Nefesh HaChaim, he wrote about the mystical power of speech: “A person may ask, ‘in what way can trivial speech and talk have any impact whatsoever on the world?’ He should know that nothing is lost. Each and every word which comes out of a person’s mouth ascends to the Supernal Realms and breaks through the heavens and enters a high place… if it is positive speech it adds power to the powers of holiness…it ascends upwards and arouses the Holiness of the Supernal Kingand it is crowned on His Headresulting in rejoicing in the Supernal and lower realms… a supernal light emanates and crowns the person who utter it all day. In contrast with speech which is not good, God forbid, he creates false heavens and… destruction of the worlds.” Rabbi Haim uses an imagery of winged birds which take hold of our words to bring them upwards to the heavens. As Rabbi Meira suggested, perhaps this is why it is called twitter and tweeting!
The common aphorismsticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me has been proven to be a feeble truth. Our sages in the Talmud had a different approach – The impact of speech is greater than physical action – “Gadol haOmer b’feev min haOseh ma’aseh” - Greater is the one who speaks than the one who acts.
If before the invention of twitter and Facebook and texting we were taught to use our words wisely, how much the more so today in an age of twitter and Facebook. For today a person can truly speak in Syria and kill in Rome.