“Sticks and Stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me?” by Rabbi Jeremy Donath


On the playgrounds of our youth we all heard the old phrase: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” While the childhood phrase speaks to the innocuous effect that words can have, our generation has finally begun to acknowledge how very far from the truth that is. While the concept of “bullying” has only recently become a trending topic, our tradition, as espoused in the Gemara in Arachin, has for centuries told a very different tale. The Gemara in Mesechet Arachin (Daf 16a) lists seven possible causes of the Tzara’at infection, which include some pretty hefty crimes such as murder, adultery, and robbery. The list also details haughtiness, Leshon HaRa, making a false oath, and Tzarut Ayin, which literally means the narrowing of the eye, but often refers to stinginess. Is it really necessary to have such a grotesque disease afflict a person for some of these somewhat minor sins? Why such a hefty consequence?

Additionally, throughout both Parashiyot Tazria and Metzora we are faced with an interesting formulation for the reparative process of the Metzora, the person afflicted with the disease. The Torah states, “VeHuva El HaKohein” (VaYikra 14:2), that the Metzora is brought to the Kohein for diagnosis. The Torah uses the Huf’al, a causative tense, to convey that the Metzora needs to be brought to the Kohein, instead of the person simply going as per his or her own admission. Why would anyone afflicted with such a repulsive disease need to be told to go see a doctor? Shouldn’t it be obvious?

In order to make sense of the aforementioned questions, it would help to examine a peculiar Pasuk in Parashat Matot. When discussing the laws of a Neder, an oath, the Torah informs us (BeMidbar 30:3), “Ish Ki Yidor Neder LaShem O HiShava Shevu’ah LEsor Isar Al Nafsho Lo Yacheil Devaro,” “If a man takes a vow to Hashem or swears an oath to establish a prohibition upon himself, he shall not profane his word.” If the Torah wished to tell us not to lie or not to deviate from the truth, why didn’t it use the more simple phraseology of “Lo Yeshakeir,” that one shouldn’t lie, or “Lo Yeshaneh,” that one should not veer from his words. Why use the term “Lo Yacheil,” “do not profane,” a term that is usually associated with the realms of Kodashim and Chulin?

Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky points out that the interesting phrase “Lo Yacheil Devaro” is chosen to teach us an important lesson. It is true that the terminology of Yacheil, profaning the sanctified, is generally reserved for use of matters pertaining to Kodashim, sanctified offerings and the most sacred of objects. However, the Torah uses a term of lofty proportions in connection with one’s speech to specifically draw that very parallelism between the holiest of things and one’s speech. In doing so, the association of the word Chulin, as in Lo Yacheil Devaro, sends a tremendously powerful message: What you say is very important. One might consider that his words are insignificant. Yet the Torah applies the terminology typically reserved to describe the loftiest of concepts to one’s speech to remind us that, in truth, words are significant. Yeish BaHem Davar. The root of the word for speech, Dibur, shares the same root as the word Davar, an object or thing. One’s words have substance and they carry with them tremendous weight.

Now we can begin to answer all of the aforementioned questions. If one were to have committed murder, adultery, or even thievery in the recent past, when he would notice his Tzara’at, he probably wouldn’t have to think hard as per the cause of his punishment. However, when it comes to the transgressor of some of the other “minor” causes of Tzara’at, the afflicted might sincerely be at a loss for explaining his spiritual infection. When he sees the grotesque blemish, he wouldn’t immediately associate it with the gossip he shared with his friends earlier in the week, or with the fact that he didn’t give charity to the poor. That connection wouldn't even cross his mind. That is why the Metzora needs to be brought to the Kohein, “VeHuva El HaKohein,” or he wouldn’t go of his own accord, because, based on his recent actions, he wouldn’t realize his sin.

And, to that mistaken notion, the Torah’s response is: Yes, there is a problem. What comes out of your mouth and the way you conduct yourself matters. The biggest surprise for the Metzora is that the disgusting growth on his arm is specifically because of the Leshon HaRa he said last week, or for the dirty look he gave when his neighbor passed by. That is why such a disgusting, pervasive blemish is necessary; namely, to alert the otherwise oblivious perpetrator that something is terribly wrong in his actions. The Metzora must come to appreciate that one’s words and one’s body language, whether it is in the form of a raised eyebrow or straight-up arrogance, can indeed make it or break it.

In a world that is just starting to acknowledge and finally starting to address the terribly damaging effects of bullying, the time has long come in which we revised that old childhood saying to: "Sticks and stones may break my bones, and dirty looks and words hurt too!”

The Three Shades of Leshon HaRa by Yosef Silfen

The Lessons of Eight by Alex Haberman