Words Hurt and Heal


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By Rabbi Robert L. Kravitz, D.D. 

A few years ago, I delivered a sermon expressing the need for civility, integrity and honesty in government. It seemed like a normal appeal to do right, speak appropriately and act within norms established by society.

I was invited not to return to that pulpit.

Ever since, I have been trying to decide whether words really do matter and whether they are more significant than actions.

Children are most often cautioned about the use of ‘naughty’ verbiage. We don’t want them cursing, making nasty comments, or today — bullying online. We tell our kids what is appropriate and what is not. We set standards for our family vocabulary and offer punishment when those standards are violated.

Words mean something, to me. Ethnic slurs, extraordinary hyperbole, swear words have impact. Using inappropriate language is just plain WRONG. Likewise, words of love, kindness and support can heal.

The letters of the English alphabet by themselves are merely symbols for the sounds we want to connect into words. By themselves, letters are totally innocuous, without impact or meaning. Joined with other such symbols, they take on a life, a reality, a meaning — for good or for evil.

When these sounds emanate from our mouths, we become responsible for their impact, or we should be held accountable for their meaning. Letters when combined with other letters yield words, and words when blended into sentences have import and impact well beyond the individual letters.

Teaching children not to use ‘dirty’ words is something parents just do; it’s the proper way to educate the younger generation. When ‘dirty’ words are used by adults, kids often call us to task and rightfully so. (Even if the hammer smashing on my thumb does feel better by my offering an expletive.)

So why did that group feel so challenged by my words? Why were so many offended by my use of the words “integrity, honesty and civility”? Maybe it hit home, putting them on notice that language that violates these standards is a critical error in the public forum. We’ll never know.


Rabbi Robert L. Kravitz, D.D., is known Valley-wide for his more than three decades of support for civil and human rights, and the positive efforts of law enforcement. A volunteer police chaplain, he regularly lectures on related subjects, while working part-time as Hospital Chaplaincy Coordinator for Jewish Family & Children’s Service. Contact him at rrlkdd@hotmail.com.


Photo by vial3tt3r on Trend hype / CC BY-NC

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