Throughout this presidential campaign, I have wanted to keep my kids away from the news. The vitriol, the lies, the non-apology apologies coming from all sides, is enough to make me want to lock them in a room with no access to any media.
But something changed for me this weekend. No, I won’t be showing my 2, 4, and 8-year-olds the latest Donald Trump tapes, but this weekend has reminded me of something that we urgently need to remind ourselves and teach our children—words matter.
So much of this campaign has been about who does and doesn’t mean what they say, or what people really meant when they said something offensive. But Judaism tells us that the words you put out into the world really, really matter.
When God created the world, God uses words, not objects, to bring the world into being. If the world can be created with words, it can also be destroyed with them. The Talmud teaches that speaking about someone behind their back kills three people: the person who told the tale, the person who heard it, and the person about whom it was spoken. Words, true or not, have such an impact that they can actually end someone’s life.
So where does that leave us, as parents in a world where people can say pretty much whatever they want and it spreads like wildfire? First, let’s teach our children that the kinds of words on those tapes are not normal, they are not just talk, they are not something that all men do. They are explicitly describing assault and it is not OK to say or do the things described in that tape. The words, whether or not they led to any actions, enhance, normalize, and promote abuse of women and rape culture in this country. So that’s the most basic level.
But we need to go beyond the basics to help our kids understand that it is not just actions, but words, that have power. This starts small, with not calling your brother stupid or spreading a story about a friend at school just because you feel angry. It means that we as parents have to be vigilant over the words we speak to our children and the words we speak to one another when we know our children are watching, listening, absorbing. It might also mean, in a limited and age appropriate way, exposing our children to some of the rhetoric of this campaign and explaining why it is not acceptable, especially for those who are asking to be leaders of our country and our community.
For kids who are curious or readers (or who take a bus to school, where all inappropriate information seems to come from in my house), it means helping them to understand what they hear on the news or read in the paper, because they will hear it. When our children say to us, “But no one was hurt by the stories they told,” it is our job as their parents to remind them how long unkind words can stay with us. If we can condition our children, and ourselves, to see how powerful their words are, we just might bend the arc of history towards kindness.
Shortly, many of us will attend Kol Nidre services on Yom Kippur, where we preemptively annul any vows that we make in the coming year. Judaism teaches that making vows is so serious that the consequences of breaking a vow can be deadly. It may seem that Kol Nidre gives us a way out, by not holding us to the words and commitments that we make.
But there is a second piece of Kol Nidre that doesn’t often get spoken about. Kol Nidre only works for vows we make to God. If we make a promise to a fellow human being, we need to go to that person and ask forgiveness if we break the vow. The words we say to other people matter, and if we use the power of our words against someone, we can’t just get out of it with a prayer one October evening.
Proverbs teaches “death and life are in the hands of the tongue.” So let’s remember that God brought the world into being with the words, “Let there be light,” and let’s use our words to bring more light into the world.
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