When Words Sprout Wings

Few things are as powerful as the spoken word.

A warm greeting, a word of encouragement, a complimentary remark, can do wonders to inspire, uplift, and create a kiddush Hashem. On the other hand, while it may take only seconds to make a thoughtless comment, one that is often regretted moments later, the damage it can cause, and the chillul Hashem it creates, is incalculable.

The wisest of all men taught us that “Even in your thoughts do not curse a king, and even in your bedroom do not curse the rich… for a bird of the sky will carry the sound and a winged creature will betray the matter…” (Koheles 10:20).

This was true even back when it took months for transatlantic mail to arrive and the fastest method to send a message was via courier on horseback. Yet in an age of instant communication, when the push of a button on a mobile device can send a video clip reverberating throughout the world, the devastating results of a wrong word have been infinitely multiplied.

There is little doubt that when a popular Jewish performer referred to President Obama in an unacceptable way at a concert in Israel, he had no intention of causing an uproar, and it almost certainly didn’t occur to him that his ad-lib comment would be picked up in the international media.

Yet in an era of smart phones and social media, one must take into consideration the grim reality that every remark can potentially be sent around the world in a matter of seconds.

It has often been noted that every member of the Jewish community, regardless of his position or occupation, is invariably seen in the eyes of the world as an ambassador for Jewry as a whole. Every sound we utter, every action we take, is held under a microscope, and those who constantly seek to discredit our community are always ready to pounce on the slightest indication of any malfeasance.

Therefore, as a community, we must publicly and firmly reject such types of comments and assure the outgoing president that they do not represent our community.

As members of a nation who have for centuries been on the receiving end of a long list of cruel anti-Semitic taunts and jibes, we ought to be especially careful not to make any sort of comment that could be readily understood as being derogatory to someone’s race or color. As Torah Jews, we are obligated to treat each individual — no matter his background or social standing — with respect and sensitivity.

In regard to those in leadership positions, especially a head of state, there is an extra obligation to show proper respect. While it is appropriate to express disagreement or disappointment with the policies of a democratically elected leader, there is no room for personal attacks and ad hominem remarks.

Chazal (Midrash Tanchuma 58:10) teach us that when Chananyah, Mishael and Azaryah refused to prostrate themselves to the colossal golden image in the Plain of Dura, Nevuchadnetzar, the evil king of Bavel, had them thrown into a fiery furnace.

The fire was so hot that the elite of Nevuchadnetzar’s guard — four subject kings and their courtiers — were consumed by the flames as they cast the three tzaddikim into the fire.

To the amazement of all present — and to the consternation of the Babylonian king — Chananyah, Mishael and Azaryah could be seen walking around unharmed in the searing flames.

Yet even after this incredible miracle, and after being told by an angel that they could leave the furnace, as a sign of respect for the ruler, the three refused to leave until they received permission from Nevuchadnetzar!

If this was the case in regard to an evil despot at the helm of a monstrously cruel regime, how much more so is our obligation to show proper respect to the president of a country that is the epitome of a malchus shel chessed.

As regretful as the comment was, those irresponsible individuals who posted the clip of the comment on social media and news blogs — who blew up a most unfortunate slip of the tongue into a news story — are guilty of causing a chillul Hashem, and deserve our strongest censure.

Finally, while it is tempting to limit our reaction to casting an accusatory finger at those directly involved in this incident, in reality, few of us can truly absolve ourselves of responsibility. For it is incumbent on us all to take steps to ensure that derogatory comments about others always remain beyond the pale. Whether in public or in the privacy of our own homes, we must carefully weigh each word before we speak. Moreover, we should consider how sorry we will be if our words are released into cyberspace.