November 16, 2018

Hugging our words

There’s nothing like a hug to express your love. For many people, a hug is even more powerful than words. Hug your mother, your spouse, a dear friend, and words are hardly necessary. A simple hug says so much.

This past week, during the holiday of Simchat Torah, Jews around the world went into a hugging frenzy. But here’s the thing — rather than hugging each other, they hugged and danced with words. They hugged Torah scrolls.

Hugging a Torah scroll is like hugging a baby. You feel the delicate velvet covering the sturdy wood of the scroll. It’s fragile yet strong. You feel protective. You are holding in your arms the words that have protected and inspired Jews for thousands of years, wherever they lived.

It’s worth reflecting on this unusual Jewish tradition of hugging words.

Here we are at the culmination of the Jewish year, when we are called on to celebrate and rejoice, and the object of our joy and reverence is a parchment containing about 300,000 Hebrew letters that have sustained us for generations.

This reverence for words in the Jewish tradition can be interpreted in many ways. Because my preference is to look for interpretations that will improve our lives, I see this honoring of words as a note of caution for how we use words in our everyday lives.

In a talk I gave recently during a Yom Kippur service, I quoted Joseph Telushkin’s book “Words That Hurt, Words That Heal,” in which he wrote: “Think about your own life … chances are the worst pains you have suffered in life have come from words used cruelly — from ego-destroying criticism, excessive anger, sarcasm, public and private humiliation, hurtful nicknames, betrayal of secrets, rumors and malicious gossip.”

In an ugly election year when the public discourse has been so coarse, we’re especially vulnerable to allowing our own speech to become contaminated. Indeed, the mere discussion of vile and hurtful speech can lead us into vile territory.

But beyond the rancid words we have witnessed through the media, there are also the words that are much closer to us — the ones we can control. These are the words we use with friends, colleagues, neighbors and family members, the words that end up defining our relationships and our character.

Here’s a thought experiment. Imagine if you took all the words you used in the past year and printed them on a scroll. Would you hug this scroll? Would you dance with it? Would you cherish it?

I often feel that at the Jewish Journal, we are printing a scroll every week with tens of thousands of new words. It’s not a Torah scroll; it’s a community scroll. But just as an expert scribe will meticulously go through a Torah scroll to correct any blemishes, we have an obligation to do the same. We know that the wrong words can have a devastating impact. We also know that the right words can inspire and elevate.

It’s the same in our own lives. Whether we are communicating through a text, a tweet or at a Shabbat table, our words can go in many different directions. We can crush or we can praise. We can bore or we can delight. We can hurt or we can heal.

At an event I attended recently, a friend of mine noticed that the speaker forgot to thank the most important person in the room, who had planned and organized the event.

 “It would have been better if she had said nothing,” my friend told me.

That is the irony of freedom of speech. All too often, we do best when we use our freedom of speech to restrain ourselves and say nothing. Instead of thinking of a clever response when our parents are saying something that may annoy us, we can just listen and let them talk. Instead of rushing to preach to our kids when they’re complaining about something, we can listen and let them express themselves. Instead of showing a dinner guest how wrong they are, we can look at the bigger picture and move on. 

We write our own scroll every day. The words we omit are as important as those we choose. If we choose carefully and wisely, our words will always be worth a good hug.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at