Soft Words

“Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said, ‘A person should never utter an ugly word.’”

BT Pesakhim 3a


As the presidential elections advance, the use of  harsh and hostile language has intensified to an unbearable pitch, leading one viewer to tell a candidate that she would not allow her nine-year old to watch a presidential debate. Ouch. That hurts. Where have Rabbi Joshua ben Levi’s wise words gone: “a person should never utter an ugly word”? We’ve had ugly words tossed about with such abandon that it has compromised the dignity of leadership itself.


I was struck by the contrast of this dilemma to something I saw in one of the most inspiring books I’ve read in years: Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Shneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi of Modern History. Rabbi Shneerson (1902-1994), affectionately known as the Rebbe, was the seventh and last head of Chabad-Lubavitch, a Chasidic branch with roots in Russia. He created a network of outreach institutions that literally span the globe.


Researching the Rebbe’s life for five years, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, the book’s author, realized that the Rebbe went to extreme lengths to avoid the use of negative words. Rabbi Telushkin examined 40 years of the Rebbe’s public lectures and concluded that the Rebbe did not criticize people by name even when he questioned a behavior. He also never used the term “beit cholim” or hospital. House of the sick, as it is literally translated, is a discouraging expression. Instead he preferred “beit refuah,” a house of healing. In a letter to Professor Mordechai Shani, director of the Sheba Medical Center in Israel, he once wrote, “Even though...this would seem to represent only a semantic change, the termbeit refuah brings encouragement to the sick, it represents more accurately the goal of the institution...which is to bring about a complete healing. Therefore, why call it by a word that does not suit its intentions?”


The Rebbe understood and modeled something obvious and potent, namely words have connotations and denotations. The choices we make influence the way we regard what we are talking about. That being the case, why choose to say something negatively when you can communicate the same message in an elevated fashion?


As another illustration, the Rebbe also did not like the term used by the IDF [the Israeli Defense Forces] to refer to those wounded by their war service: “nechai Tzahal,” literally, army handicapped. After the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the Rebbe said, “If a person has been deprived of a limb or a faculty, this itself indicates that God has also given him special powers to overcome the limitations this entails, and to surpass the achievement of ordinary people.” He preferred a different term thatwould reflect on their service rather its cost: “metzuyanim

” or exceptional veterans.  In the 50s and 60s when terms like moron, retard and idiot (it hurts to write this) were still widely in use to describe the mentally disabled, the Rebbe used the word “special,” decades before it became common parlance. 


The Rebbe also did not like to say evil and instead said, “hefech ha-tov,” the opposite of good. He did not even like the term “deadline” preferring instead the due date - using a term referencing birth rather than death. You could say this is a stretch, but perhaps the Rebbe had internalized the words of Genesis one. Words create and destroy worlds, real and emotional.


He often said, “Think good, and it will be good,” years before the school of positive psychology was born. To a man who complained that his children were assimilating and regularly used the Yiddish expression, “It’s hard to be a Jew,” the Rebbe responded “Then that is the message your children hear and that is the impression of Judaism they have.” The Rebbe challenged this father to use another Yiddish expression, “It’s good to be a Jew.”


All this positivity and feel-good language might be hard for the more cynical among us to stomach. Yet it’s high time that we demand that politicians, celebrities and athletes stop throwing words around like bullies or hurling invectives at each other with little thought about how it shifts our general use of language. And while we’re at it, maybe we can all release a little of our “inner Rebbe” and try a softer word, a more gentle tone, a more embracing and loving approach.


Today’s challenge: Spend one entire day avoiding any negative speech. Shabbat is a great day to keep it holy.


Shabbat Shalom