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Words create people, and words create societies. Delving into the latest science around speech and neuroscience, communication professor Mark Waldman, one of the world’s leading experts on communication, and Dr Andrew Newberg, a research director at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, explore the idea of “compassionate communication” in their book: Words can change your brain. They describe how, from childhood, humans’ brains are moulded by the words they hear, and that teaching children to use positive words helps them with emotional control and can even increase their attention spans.

The Torah places an enormous emphasis on the ethics of proper speech, with many detailed laws and categories. Speech, unique to humans, forms the bridge between two otherwise separate, independent people. It binds us together. Because speech is the bridge between people, the values and ethics that surround it are influential as they touch on the essence of how we treat the people around us.

This week’s parsha, Behar, states: “One person shall not hurt his fellow.” (Vayikra 25:17) The Talmud (Bava Metzia 58b) explains that the verse is referring to causing emotional hurt through speech. The Talmud goes on to provide a number of examples, all of them relating to hurting people where they are most vulnerable, such as reminding a person who has done repentance for their previous wrongdoings, or a convert of their background, or to say judgmental things to a person who is suffering.

This week’s parsha, Behar, states: “One person shall not hurt his fellow.” (Vayikra 25:17) The Talmud (Bava Metzia 58b) explains that the verse is referring to causing emotional hurt through speech. The Talmud goes on to provide a number of examples, all of them relating to hurting people where they are most vulnerable, such as reminding a person who has done repentance for their previous wrongdoings, or a convert of their background, or to say judgmental things to a person who is suffering.

The Talmud even extends the category of hurtful speech to causing any emotional hurt or disappointment, such as asking a shopkeeper how much a particular item costs if you have no intention of buying it. Clearly, we need to be supremely sensitive to how our words will be received by another person, even if no harm is intended.

This mitzvah of proper speech goes right to the heart of the kind of society we wish to create. Using the power of speech for good is an expression of our partnership with G-d in creating the world. The Sefer HaChinuch says positive speech sows peace among people, and within society at large. Regarding the mitzvah of proper speech: “Great is peace because through it blessing exists in the world, and problematic is conflict [because] many curses and calamities come from it.” In other words, a peaceful, harmonious society is created through speech that is ethical, sensitive, kind and compassionate, while a divisive, hostile society is characterised by aggressive, harsh, hurtful speech.

But, there is a deeper dimension to the power of speech. The Maharal says harmful speech constitutes a direct assault on the Tzelem Elokim – the Divine image, the G-dly soul – within a person. He explains that wronging another person can affect different aspects of the human being. The wrongdoing can strike at another person’s possessions or money, or it can strike at their body, their physical being. He says verbal abuse is uniquely pernicious because it strikes at the neshama – at the soul, which is the very essence of the human being.

It is in this context that we can understand the dramatic statement of the Talmud (Bava Metzia 58b) that shaming another person in public is considered a form of murder.

The Maharal explains, based on the Gemara, that when a person is shamed in public, their face becomes ashen. He says the Tzelem Elokim is physically manifest through the glow on a person’s face. This becomes obvious when, at the point of death, the soul leaves the body and the face (and the body) of the corpse turn ashen. The glow emanates from the spiritual energy of the soul. So, if a person is shamed to such an extent that the glow leaves his face, it indicates that the Tzelem Elokim has, so to speak, been knocked out of such a person.

Of course, it works the other way as well. Words of praise and acknowledgement make a person’s face glow. Kind, gentle words, words of warmth and encouragement, nurture the souls of those around us.

The Maharal quotes a Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 4), which states that the soul of every human being is in G-d’s hands, and that G-d therefore defends it. This is how the Maharal explains the Gemara, which says G-d considers it a direct affront when someone uses the power of words to harm another human being. The Talmud goes so far as to say (Bava Metzia 59a) that even in a time when it is difficult to access Hashem, nevertheless the “Gates of Heaven” are always open to a person who calls out in pain from the hurtful words of another person.

And so this mitzvah of not hurting another person with one’s words is crucial to creating the kind of world we wish to live in. Adhering to the laws and stipulations of proper speech helps us to achieve something beyond the smooth functioning of a society. It actually lays the platform for the greatest task we have as human beings, enabling the Tzelem Elokim – the spark of pure G-dliness within each one of us – to flourish, enabling us to draw close to our Creator and fulfil our G-dly potential. Ensuring an environment in which the Tzelem Elokim is strengthened and can flourish is part of our responsibility as partners with G-d in creation, and is in fact G-d’s ultimate vision for the world.

In essence, what emerges is the idea that for human beings to flourish, we need to give space for the Tzelem Elokim within every human to flourish. Positive speech creates the conditions under which this is possible. Verbal abuse – hurtful words – oppress the soul and crush the human spirit; they undermine the capacity for human beings to flourish. Through words of affirmation, on the other hand, we aren’t just able get along with each other; we don’t just avoid conflict; we set the conditions for real human flourishing.

But, it goes even deeper. The Ramban says the power of words affects not just the people they are directed at, but also the speaker of those words. He goes as far as to say that speaking gently, sensitively and compassionately is the key to creating the kind of person we want to be. And so this mitzvah becomes part of the life project of self-creation, of self-transformation. In his famous letter to his son, the Ramban begins by saying: “Accustom yourself always to speak all of your words with gentleness to all people at all times, and through this you’ll be saved from anger, which is a terrible trait that causes people to sin… this will bring to your heart the attribute of humility, which is the finest of all of the character traits… and through humility, the awe of G-d will intensify in your heart…”

So we see from this passage in the Ramban that the journey of self-transformation and self-improvement begins with the way we speak. When we speak kindly and gently, we are saved from anger and draw close to G-d. Speech that is hurtful, on the other hand, creates a world of anger, and also drives anger deep into our own make-up. Ultimately, it distances us from G-d and unmoors us from our own spiritual potential.

These things are all interconnected. Gentleness and kindness lead to humility. Humility is about recognising the intrinsic value, appreciating the preciousness, of every person created in the image of G-d. It is about recognising that whatever gifts we may have, come directly from G-d, and do not make us better than another person, but only impose on us greater responsibility to do good in the world. This humility is intertwined with an appreciation for G-d’s greatness.

Positive, kind, compassionate speech is about creating a flourishing, peaceful society. It is about upholding the image of G-d within every person and giving it the space to flourish. It is about the journey of self-transformation, the journey of self-creation.