The story is told of a young child who was known for having an uncontrollable mouth! In various versions of the story, the child is a gossip, or a slanderer, or a mean-spirited young person who regularly spouted off and used words to hurt others. The other children, exasperated by this behavior, finally turned to their rabbi for assistance. The rabbi calls the child in to the synagogue and begins a conversation. "Do you see that pillow there on the sofa?" the rabbi asks. "Yes, of course," replied the child. "I want you to take it outside and tear it open and shake all the feathers out," instructed the rabbi.
Incredulously, the child did as the rabbi said, and returned to report in. "Good," said the rabbi, "Now go and gather all the feathers and return them to the pillow," said the rabbi. "Impossible!" replied the child. "The feathers have blown everywhere in the wind. I can never get them all!" "Exactly," taught the rabbi, "and so it is with your words. Once you have spoken your words, they are in the wind, and you can never retrieve them. So you must be careful to learn to think before you speak."
The simple story teaches important lessons. Words have great power, and we can use them to help or to harm others. Once spoken, our words, like the feathers, are "in the wind." We can never take them back.
I must admit that I can use constant reminders of this truth. I am often quick to speech, and know that choosing my words carefully, and listening as much as I speak, is one of my greatest challenges. I would never deliberately hurt another with my words, yet I know that I sometimes do. And I am well aware of how easy it is to justify simple gossip, conversations "between friends," and innocent idle chit chat, confusing it for meaningful discourse.
But the words we speak have great power, a power we must guard with great care.
This is true of speech and also of the written word. In our age, this is particularly true of words written in email, text messages, and other social media. It is so easy to use our words without thought, dashing off an email or other electronic message and hitting "SEND" without thought, and these words are difficult, if not impossible to retract once written or spoken.
Our Jewish tradition speaks of the power of speech. God creates our world with words, but we can also use words to destroy. The rabbis teach about Lashon Harah, "The Evil Tongue." When we gossip, even when we think we are just talking, when we speak ill of others, even if it is true, when we use words in an abusive or hurtful manner, when we lash out at others with our words, when we criticize incessantly, when we engage in idle talk about other people, we are sinning against God, against others, and against ourselves.
As Elul flows to the new year, we would do well to review our words, choosing them carefully, and make sure to speak gently, carefully and with wisdom. For once we release our words to the winds, they are impossible to gather again.
Rabbi Jim Bennett