Parshat Devarim: Positive Words

Parshat Devarim, literally “words,” teaches that the language we choose to use can influence people’s motivation levels and feelings of optimism.

Devarim opens with naming several places where the nation traveled in the desert. However, these places were never mentioned in the Torah before. Rashi teaches that this was how Moshe rebuked the generation whose parents sinned in the desert. Moshe alludes to these events indirectly, out of respect for Israel. Instead of using words which were shaming and demotivating, Moshe models how to speak words of criticism in a way which is respectful and can have positive outcomes.

Our choice of words can also have a positive affect on our mindset and well-being. In masechet Pesachim Rabbi Yehoshua b. Levi advises not to use negative language. He bases this on the fact that the Torah teaches the value of speaking positively by the addition of extra letters in the Noah narrative. Rather than calling the animals “impure,” the Torah states, “those that are not pure.” Similarly, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin writes in his book “Rebbe,” that the Lubavitcher Rebbe believed that carefully chosen words could positively influence the emotional state of ourselves and others. For instance, the Rebbe refused to call a hospital a “beit cholim” (house of the sick) but rather called it “beit refuah” (house of healing).

As Tisha B’Av approaches, we learn that the Beit Hamikdash was destroyed because of sinat chinam (baseless hatred). Moreover, the enmity between Qamtza and Bar Qamtza and the silence of the rabbis who were with them led to the destruction of Jerusalem. Parshat Devarim and Tisha B’Av are reminders that speaking respectfully and positively spreads ahavat chinam and optimism in our world. Shabbat Shalom🌷 -Karen Miller Jackson

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