Words Can Hurt and Words Can Heal
June 21, 2024

By Rob Goldberg

In this week’s Torah portion, Behaalotecha (Numbers 8:1-12:16) there is a troubling moment when Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron, is punished by Gd after she speaks negatively of Moses for taking a Cushite woman to be his wife. The punishment, leprosy (12:1). “As the cloud withdrew from the Tent, there was Miriam stricken with snow-white scales” (12:10). This is a proof text to underscore the severity of speaking ill of others, what is referred to as “lashan harah,” literally the evil tongue.

The psalmist writes: Who is the person who is eager for life, who desires years of good fortune?  Guard your tongue from evil, your lips from deceitful speech. (Psalms 34:13-14). This is in recognition that often we are often inclined to speak badly of others, and it is a challenge and constant that we need to be careful with what we say, text, email, and post. As Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (z”l) wrote of such poisoning language: “When we speak disparagingly of others, we diminish them, we diminish ourselves, and we damage the very ecology of freedom.”

Last week, the Ohr Temimim School was thrust into a painful situation when the school received an email from a staff member of the Locust Street Art Center indicating that they would not be able to work together because Ohr Temimim was a Zionist school supporting “genocide in Palestine.”  After direct communication from Ohr Temimim and extensive media coverage that called out Locust Street Art for their decision and hateful, antisemitic language, the two organizations came together to meet this week for an open conversation. “It was a productive, meaningful and educational conversation,” posted Kim Yonaty. “As we sat together and discussed the pain of the last week, one thing was clear…both organizations play important roles in our community.”

In our current environment, particularly after the horrific attack of October 7, it takes courage to speak openly with those who direct hatred toward Jews, whether knowingly or unknowingly. The leadership of Ohr Temimim, and the friends of the school who were part of these conversations, including community leaders Michael Kracker, Erie County Republican Chairman, Legislator Chris Greene, and Lynne Dixon, modeled with their voices that while words can hurt, they can also heal.

Ohr Temimim Board President, Sonia Gelman Young, shared that this moment of gathering and open dialogue for her, was a “Kiddush HaShem,” meaning “sanctification of the Name,” a precept that refers to conduct that reflects well on the Jewish people. As we enter Shabbat, let us be reminded of our sacred duty to guard our tongue from speaking ill, and the opportunities before us for dialogue, bridge building, and seeking moments to sanctify Gd’s name.


Rob Goldberg is the current CEO of Buffalo Jewish Federation.

Words Can Hurt and Words Can Heal - Ohr Temimim and Locust Street Art
Words Can Hurt and Words Can Heal - Jewish Thought of the week 2022