January 21, 2019

From Torah to Twitter, Be Careful What You Say

Words are powerful.

How did God create the world? What were God’s tools for creating the world?

And God said ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light…and God said…and God said…” – such was the process of creation, from light to human beings. God spoke, and words became a world.

We are reminded of this every morning during our prayers, when we recite the prayer “Baruch She’amar”:

Baruch She’amar ve-haya ha-olam…Blessed be He who spoke and the world came into being.

Jewish commentators widely agree that God’s use of words to create the world represents a metaphor on speech and communication.

It is empowering to know that we possess the same tools that God used to create the world. With our own words, we have the power to create entire new worlds of knowledge, innovation and progress for humanity. Through our words, we have the power to build and to inspire.

But we also know that those very same tools – words — have the power to destroy.

Reading ahead in Genesis, we meet the world’s first brothers, Cain and Abel. While out in the field together, Cain and Abel had an exchange of words, one that was so negative that it led to the world’s first-ever murder:

“Cain said to his brother Abel… and when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him.”

We know that Cain said something, and we know that Cain killed Abel. What we don’t know is what Cain said, what Abel might have responded, and what type of exchange ensued between them. The Torah omits their words, leaving it for us to think about.

Thus, in Chapter 1 of the Torah, words created the entire world, yet by Chapter 4, words resulted in murder.

We’ve seen this pattern throughout history.

With words, visionary leaders and orators like Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King and David Ben-Gurion inspired people towards new ideas meant to create a better world for all of humanity.

With words, demagogic leaders and orators like Adolph Hitler convinced millions of people to adopt racist ideas that led to mass murder.

Wise men, be careful with your words.” Such was the warning by Pirkei Avot specifically addressed to public figures.

When our sages said this, little did they know that there would come a day when – at the mere push of a button – words could spread to millions of people.

Today, all it takes to build – or to destroy – is a mere 140 characters.

“Wise men, be careful with your words.”