One who curses his father or mother shall surely be put to death (Shemot 21:17)
The Torah mandates certain behaviors and forbids others. When the punishment is delineated, one can measure the gravity of the transgression. A lashing is certainly less harsh than the death penalty, but even within the category of capital punishment our Sages have broken down, according to severity, the four means used by the bet din to inflict the death penalty. When one strikes another, a monetary payment is imposed commensurate with the resulting damage. If one hits a parent, causing the same injury, one is put to death by strangulation — the lightest form of capital punishment. If a person should curse a parent, one is executed with the harshest of all court-imposed sentences — death by stoning.
If we were to ask a fair-minded person which transgression should bear the more severe punishment, it is certain that the response would be that hitting a parent is worse than cursing. Why, then, is the punishment for cursing worse than that for inflicting a wound?
Ramban (loc. cit.) explains that cursing involves the use of Hashem’s name compounding the felony and raising the level of punishment to stoning. Others explain that since cursing so often occurs when one loses one’s temper, which is a common occurrence, a stronger deterrent is imposed.
Our question is based on a false assumption. People assume that a blow to the body is definitely more serious than an insult or hurtful comment. To get a laugh at the expense of a child, student, spouse or acquaintance doesn’t seem to compare to a wound that might take weeks or months to heal. It doesn’t even come to mind that a harsh word might inflict a lifelong psychological wound. The Torah, however, uses this seeming imbalance in punishment to teach us that the power of words is much more potent than that of physical blows. The degree of caution required when speaking is much greater than that needed when striking another physically.
The awesome power of words can destroy or build. Every word that passes through the gates of our teeth and lips can cause great harm or result in positive influence.
The words we speak can be broken down into three categories. Forbidden speech includes lies, insults and lashon hara. Heresy and the spread of false beliefs are also forbidden. Permitted speech includes the words one must use to conduct the matters of day-to-day living. The highest form of talk are words of sanctity. Learning Torah or speaking with Our Creator to express thanks and praise or to acknowledge our dependence on Him are obviously praiseworthy uses of our unique ability to communicate. What one might miss is the opportunity to console and encourage. These positive words can have a lifelong impact on the listener and many others as well.
There was once a dinner to honor the Menahelet of a prestigious Bet Yaakov. After the presentation of awards, the founder of the Bet Yaakov congratulated the woman who was the recipient of the main award.
“What was it that helped you succeed in such an exemplary fashion that you were able to rise above others in your field?” he asked.
“It was a word from an educator many years ago that gave me the confidence to achieve. Soon after graduation from seminary, I gave a model lesson in another Bet Yaakov. Afterwards, the distinguished head of that institution, a respected educator in his own right, said, ‘You demonstrated great potential. One day you could reach the heights in this admirable profession.’ That comment made me feel so good, especially coming from such a respected professional.
“By the way, that man was you!”
The Torah expects everyone to understand the power of words to build or to destroy before any words leave one’s lips. Remember, a physical injury can heal and be forgotten but a verbal one may change a life forever. Always choose to build with your words!