Taming the Tongue (T – Part 2)
The Power of Words
“The instruments of both life and death are contained within the power of the tongue.”
Our gift of speech is one aspect that defines us as human. How we employ this gift is of great significance in our daily lives and in our relationships. The momentum caused by the combination of our intellect, emotions and experience stir in us the desire and the need to communicate. Each one of us has something to say that no one else can say. We each are unique in our being and in our circumstances and we offer a perspective and can make observations that are totally original. What we have to offer is a precious contribution in the “open forum” of life. Sometimes we need to be encouraged and reassured that our ‘voice’ has value and deserves to be heard. At other times, when we forget to share in words that are thoughtful, gracious and delivered in love, we need to be gently cautioned and silenced. Only when we are at peace within ourselves, and secure in the knowledge that we “have our being” in our Father God and are growing and maturing in His loving care, can we feel free to fully and humbly offer our gift.
There may never have been a time when the use of negative, “put down” rhetoric has been such a prevalent force in Western culture. It is rife in every form of media and steadily seeps into the minds and souls of its viewers. As well as in the breakdown of marriages, we have seen the fruit of this in our schools with the ever-increasing rate of suicide and murders that are directly connected to intimidation, verbal abuse and bullying. The onus for rectifying this behavior is not only on the students but particularly on parents and teachers. Educator, Haim Ginott, made the astute observation on the difference a teacher can make:
I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in my classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate… As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration.
How much more can we apply these words in the home? What influence do we have as a spouse, parent or a sibling? For that is the power inherent in every tongue – to be “a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration.”
There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing (Proverbs 12:18).
Rabbi Lazer Brody, a mentor and spiritual leader in Israel, beautifully sums up the importance of the tongue in his article, “The Greenhouse”:
One of the first things in child education that I learned … is that criticism and negative comments destroy a child. Parents hate criticism and negative comments, so why do it to their kids? A child’s home should be a greenhouse of warmth and sunlight. Smiles, compliments and positive reinforcement are the water that helps a child’s soul bloom like a beautiful flower.
In avoiding angry, negative and critical words a retreat into grim and ‘loaded’ silence is not a solution. A frowning, disapproving countenance speaks a thousand words! As do a critically raised eyebrow or a dismissive shrug. A calm silence, however, is often very wise, and controlling one’s tongue includes not talking unnecessarily, as one of the Sages commented: “I found nothing better for oneself than silence… and one who talks excessively brings on sin” (Avot 1:17). On the other hand, withholding necessary communication also can be harmful. We need to use the gift of our voices to share kindness, assurance, reinforcement. While a smile and a few words of encouragement may not seem like a big deal to us, to a lonely, hurting soul they might be something they will cherish for a lifetime.
Another prominent teacher, Hal Urban, places great emphasis on the need, as he well expresses it, “to create a caring community in my classroom.” Central in doing so, are his efforts to help his students understand the impact for good or for ill that their language has, on themselves, on others and on the very environment. He posts notices on the walls of his classroom as reminders. Many are positive and encouraging such as, “Win-win Words” “Celebrate Today!” and “Kind Words cost Little but Accomplish Much.” The first one to which he always draws their attention says: “No Put-downs” enclosed in a red circle with a slash through it, and below that, “Compliments Spoken Here.” One set of signs all have one word in a red circle with a slash and are grouped around the word “Poison.” The words are: “Complaining,” “Moaning,” “Groaning,” “Whining,” “Swearing,” “Gossip.” When he asks each group of students what this signified, they always come up with the right answer: “Doing those things is like spraying poison into the atmosphere.”  Too much poison can kill.
We read in Genesis that Joseph’s brothers “so hated him that they could not speak a friendly word to him” (37:4). Their hatred was based on anger and resentment that he was their father’s favored son. A commandment in the Torah warns: “Do not hate your brother in your heart” (Leviticus 19:17). Well known Jewish author and ethicist, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin advises how to act, once you are in a calm frame of mind:
If you are angry at another, don’t just nurse the grievance in your heart but raise the issue with the person who has enraged you and make it known how he or she has hurt you. Few people do this. Most either nurse their anger in sullen silence, or speak of it incessantly to their friends. 
The confrontation that is required to approach another and bring an issue to light is usually difficult to accomplish, which is why it is so often neglected. However, it is vital for healing and reconciliation and failure to do so will generate sin upon sin. As Telushkin described, a person will carry a growing anger and hatred in his heart and/or engage in spreading gossip.
LaShon Ha’Ra – Evil Speech
In Judaism, the subject of ethical speech is considered of great importance. Controlling one’s tongue is a huge challenge. In fact, the Talmud asserts that, in ordinary situations, virtually everyone will transgress the rules of ethical speech at least once a day (Bava Bathra 164b-165a). In Pirkei Avot, The Ethics of the Fathers, it is written, “Who is strong? …He who is a master of his passions [who can control himself, including his tongue] is stronger than the conqueror of a city” (4:1). While outright lying and slander are clearly recognized as immoral and illegal, the so called “minor infractions” of speech are often disregarded. The Hebrew term for this type of infraction is lashon ha’ra, which is literally translated as ‘bad tongue’ or ‘evil language or speech.’
Lashon ha’ra includes, for example, passing on to another a statement about a person that might be true but casts the person in a negative light. This is an aspect of the central temptation of lashon ha’ra, which is rechilut – gossip! These days, gossip is a major industry and is very thinly disguised, if at all; rather it is promoted and taken pleasure in. In our Father’s eyes, it is a sin. As with any sin, such as murder or theft, one does not wish to be the one sinned against and one feels the pain of being the object of gossip or the butt of a joke. Yeshua’s teaching can well be applied here, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Luke 6:31).
Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan (1838-1933), more generally known as the Chafetz Chayim (which means ‘Desire Life’; Psalm 34:13), a chief protagonist on the subject of lashon ha’ra, emphasized a valuable element of the subject of bad and negative speech: “Don’t speak lashon ha’ra against yourself.” How we think about ourselves will affect our reactions to, and dealings with, other people. Leviticus 19:18 explicitly states that we “love our neighbors as ourselves.” This implicitly commands us to love ourselves; obviously not in a narcissistic way but with a healthy self esteem in the knowledge that we are made in the image of God. When we do so, we are able to view others in the same light and, just as we would not speak negatively and disparagingly about someone we love, so we will avoid putting ourselves down in any way. However, more often than not, on a conscious level we are more inclined to commit lashon ha’ra against others. Joseph Telushkin cautions against the many seemingly small ‘slights’ that are in fact sins of “putting down”. For example, verbal innuendo, such as, “Don’t mention Robert’s name… I don’t want to say what I know about him!” Or sarcastic comments like, “Yeah, he’s a real genius isn’t he?” when someone has done something foolish; or to show someone an unflattering picture of someone and to laugh about it.  All these may be relatively insignificant in our eyes, but all are sins in the sight of God.
We are assured in His Word that when we sincerely repent of our sin our merciful Father will forgive and cancel that sin, just as if it never happened. An important element of repentance, including in the case of lashon ha’ra, is restitution. We need to act on our repentance to the best of our ability. If we wronged someone we need to apologize and make amends; for example, if something was stolen it must be returned. Regarding sins of lashon ha’ra it is difficult, and often impossible, to make amends, which is all the more reason to train ourselves to avoid it in the first place.
A rabbi once wanted to instill this lesson in the minds of his students. He asked one to fetch a feather pillow. He cut the pillow open and shook the contents from the window of the second story classroom. The wind caught the feathers and they twirled away over the town. The rabbi instructed the students, “Now go and collect all the feathers!” They realized it was a fruitless task and he said, “It is just as impossible to take back foolish talk or unwise words.” We can never know the extent to which our lashon ha’ra will travel or the damage it will do.
Recently, I read in a prayer letter Praying God’s Heart in Times Like These! a moving reminder by a Baptist minister, Dr. Greg Frizzell, of the importance of sharing His love with one another as opposed to bringing pain to the Father’s heart.
It is the desire of God’s heart that His people live in powerful love and oneness to the glory of His name. With God, everything is about relationships! We must remember that the two great commandments emphasized by Yeshua are to love God with all our hearts and to love our neighbors as ourselves.” (Matthew 22:38-39) It is further clear that love and unity between believers is key to an empowered witness to a lost world. (Jn 13:34; 17:21) While loving unity brings God glory, bickering among believers horribly profanes His name and grieves His Spirit. In Scripture, there is no doubt that right human relationships are crucial to right relationship with God and answered prayer.
(Matthew 5:23-24, 6:14-15) 
“And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against any one; so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.”
Let us agree with Dr Frizzell’s prayer to our Father:
“Help us tear down the strongholds of bickering and disunity that so ravage our churches, denominations and families. Move us to ask forgiveness of everyone we have offended and extend forgiveness to all who have offended us. Forgive us for saying things in person, in print or on-line that profane Your name before a watching world we are supposed to reach.”
The proactive way to tame the tongue is to consistently speak words of blessing and kindness. Relationships are built and strengthened by loving words. The Jewish custom of husbands speaking blessings over their wives and children on the eve of Shabbat deeply strengthens family bonds. The immeasurable importance of parents speaking words of love and affirmation to their children, as well as the actions demonstrated, is described by Rabbi Wayne Dosick:
Every word that parents and their children speak, every action that parents and their children take, and every deed that parents and their children perform help to create the children’s “memory bank.” That record becomes the parent’s history and posterity. For the children, it is [a great factor in] their inheritance and their destiny. 
~ Keren Hannah Pryor
1. Hal Urban, Positive Words, Powerful Results, Fireside, NY, 2004, 145
2. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, The Book of Jewish Values, Bell Tower, NY, 2000, 69.
3. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, The Book of Jewish Values, 293.
4. Dr. Gregory Frizzell
5. Hal Urban, Positive Words, Powerful Results, 134.