By RABBI JOSEPH H. PROUSER
Among the first textbooks I used in studying Hebrew was one titled “B’Yad Ha-Lashon.” The text was replete with vocabulary lists, exercises, and model conversations… and was accompanied by a set of LP records – making of our home turntables diminutive language labs.
The text took its name from the Hebrew of Proverbs 18:21 – “Death and life are B’Yad Lashon – in the power of the tongue.” My teachers invoked that Biblical message to emphasize that acquisition of Hebrew language skills was a serious matter indeed!
The verse correctly and wisely warns that how we speak and what we say can do great harm… or bring much needed healing. Fully a third of the transgressions enumerated in the Yom Kippur liturgy refer to sins of speech, the abuse of language… perhaps because such offenses are so common, so very human, so terribly difficult to avoid.
The Rabbis (Arachin 15B) teach that mean-spirited gossip or slander (lashon ha-ra) is tantamount to a triple murder! We destroy the individual being smeared. The person to whom we speak ill of another is forever changed by the burden of our demeaning words, the scandalous information we convey. The slanderer her- or himself is victimized: lashon ha-ra is a self-destructive vice.
“Death and life are, indeed, B’Yad Lashon…”
In any language.
(Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser is the rabbi of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey and the National Chaplain of the National Jewish Committee on Scouting.)