As we approach the advent of Rosh HaShana, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, we can be mindful of the hope offered by these Days of Awe that change is possible. Jewish wisdom invites us to focus during this period on a specific kind of change, teshuvah, repentance. The process of repentance asks us to look deeply into ourselves and change our moral and ethical behavior.
Of all the ways people hurt each other, the most common is through the power of words. On Yom Kippur we recite a formal list of forty-four sins, twelve of which focus on how we use our words, among which are these admissions:
For the sin which we have committed before You with the utterance of our lips,
And for the sin which we have committed before You through impurity of speech.
For the sin which we have committed before You through foolish talk,
And for the sin we have committed before You through false denial and lying.
For the sin we have committed before You through evil talk about another,
And for the sin we have committed before You by gossiping.
One of the clearest signs of a moral life is right speech. Words are one of the most powerful forces we as humans wield. Words have the power to insult, to belittle, to wound, to humiliate and to abuse. As with physical violence, words leave lasting scars. Words also have the power to embrace others with kindness, to lift them up, to offer compassion, and to heal. Being mindful of how we use our words and considering before we speak if what we want to say is true, necessary, helpful and kind is the foundation of healing speech.
During the High Holidays we are reminded that among the most powerful of all healing words are “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you.” To say “I’m sorry” is healing both for the speaker and the listeners. By acknowledging our hurtful behavior and owning it, we are freed of our shame and guilt. When we hear the words “I’m sorry” spoken to us, we understand that our hurt has been acknowledged and we feel seen and understood. The words “I forgive you” are words of healing that offer both individuals compassion and relief.
Today we are experiencing a new level of hate speech in the world around us. Not only does this include vicious acts of bullying both children and adults because of their race, religion, gender identity or sexual orientation; entire groups of people and communities are targeted with cruel name-calling, ethnic slurs and demeaning language all used to inflict devastating suffering. The deep wounds hate speech causes in our society are not only emotional. The history and the experience of the Jewish People demonstrates that hate speech inexorably leads to violence. Words matter. The renewal that the High Holidays celebrate is not just for us as individuals but for our community and our world. We become kinder people by learning to speak without harshness or hatred but with caring and understanding. We can make our society a better place by being conscious of how we speak and making the conscious choice to use words to heal rather than hurt. Living in a world where words sow seeds of hatred and division will lead us into despair. The promise of the High Holidays is that we can live instead with profound hope.
In this new year, may you and those you love be blessed with the sweetness of new beginnings, and with hope and a renewed commitment to grow personally and collectively.