When I was young, other kids said mean things to me often. Back then, people called this “teasing”; today you might call it “bullying.”
My mom would repeat to me a refrain that might be familiar to you:
Sticks and stones may break my bones but names can never hurt me.
We now know that this isn’t exactly true. In fact, names do hurt. Very often, names, criticisms, even harsh tones, leave scars that last longer than physical wounds.
The words we say, and how we speak them, matter.
If you have any doubt about this, we need look no further than Yom Kippur, where this truth is reinforced repeatedly in the prayers.
The Sin of the Spies
The Sin of the Spies was a crucial moment that gave us the lesson in how to ask God for forgiveness.
After the Exodus from Egypt, the miracles in the desert, and God’s revelation to the people at Mount Siani, they were finally close to the promised land. Moses sent 12 men — one from each tribe — to check out the land and return with a report. Ten of the spies reported that the land was good, but that its inhabitants were strong and the cities fortified. The spies concluded that they would not be able to conquer the land.
This demoralized the Jewish people. They became hopeless and expressed their desire to return to Egypt — where they had been slaves.
God was so angry that he threatened to destroy the entire generation and begin anew with Moses. Moses pleaded with God, begging for forgiveness for the people.
The main prayer that Moses used — reciting the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy — is what we recite dozens of times throughout Yom Kippur.
The Sin of the Spies is therefore top of mind throughout Yom Kippur as the source of our pleas for forgiveness.
But the story is notable for another reason: it shows us the power of words.
What exactly was the sin of the spies?
It was a sin of words. The spies told a story that planted seeds of doubt and fear in the people. Their words were a source of disempowerment.
The confessional prayers are said 10 times over the course of Yom Kippur services.
The preliminary, general confessional contains 25 sins, of which 4 relate to speech:
- we have spoken slander
- we have framed lies
- we have given bad advice
- we have deceived
The private confessional is comprised of 44 sins. Of these, 11 relate to externally directed speech, and two relate to inner dialogue.
- utterance of our lips
- insincere confession
- impure lips
- foolish speech
- deceit and lies
- evil speech
- idle chatter of our lips
- vain oath
- thoughts of the heart
- confusion of the heart
The prominence of speech in the confessional shows us just how important this is. The sages viewed evil speech to be just as bad as murder, forbidden sex, and idolatry, combined.
The Power of Speech
Words have the power to sow seeds of doubt, fear, and unrest. They can incite violence. And they can undermine the trust on which our relationships are built.
Once spoken, words are impossible to retract. They take on a life of their own because the meaning of the words ultimately rests with those who hear them, not those who speak them.
This is true not only of the speech we speak aloud to others, but also of our inner speech. How we speak to ourselves matters.
Yom Kippur itself is a day of words. Unlike other holidays, where we engage in various physical rituals, on Yom Kippur we spend the entire day immersed in prayer.
This day therefore serves an important reminder that what we say and how we say it matters.