Thursday, May 12, 2011

"You Only Hurt the One You Love"

Do you remember growing up when we commonly used the refrain "sticks and stones can break my bones but names will never harm me". Of course it wasn't true. Too often most of us felt the woundedness caused by harsh and critical words. And they left marks more deleterious and longer lasting than any physical blow we might have sufferred.

The Torah this week in the parsha of B'har makes clear that abuse through words is unacceptable and a sin. The Torah teaches "'v'lo tonu ish et amito'" " and do not wrong one another". The Sages in the Talmud point out that here the text is referring to verbal advantage/abuse. It cannot be addressing financial wrong, as in cheating or deception, since the Torah, in an earlier verse, already taught us that we may not take financial advantage of a fellow Jew by deceiving or cheating him/her. This commandment then is teaching us that we must watch how we speak to another, that we not cause him/her emotional hurt by putting him/her down, by teasing, or by knowingly giving him/her bad advice.

The Torah edict makes perfect sense. We know that we can be hurt and hurt another worse with words than with money. What is surprising is what the Talmud goes on to say about the parameters of the prohibition. The Talmud wants to understand the word 'amito',literally, "his peer" as it is used in the verse above where we are forbidden to cause hurt. 'Amito' is an uncommon term to use when referring to another. Typically the text will use the word 'ish' meaning,
a person, or 'acheve', meaning, his brother, as occurrs often in the reading of B'har. What does 'amito' mean here?
They go on to say that the word 'amito' is an abridgement of several longer words. It stands for "'am she'itcha b'torah umitzvot'", "persons who are similar to you in that they keep the Torah and the commandments".

Yet can that be? Can it be that we are only forbidden from verbally abusing Jews who are Observant, Jews who are faithful to the law? Can it really be that we are permitted to be cruel to a non-religious Jew or a non-Jew, to put him/her down, to be verbally abusive? That hardly makes sense. The Torah is clear, we are forbidden to cause physical harm to all Jews. And stealing is unacceptable even from a non-Jew. We are commanded to be sensitive to the pain of animals. How can we be granted license to cause emotional pain to others, even be they other than us in Torah adherence?

The question that troubles me is one that troubled Rabbi Baruch Epstein and he sought to makes sense of it in his commentary "Torah Temimah". In the end, his response seems unsatisfying even to him. In keeping with the concept of this blog, that is, personalizing the Torah text to see what it has to say to us in the context of our lives, I shared this vexing problem with my wife. And she, out of the context of her life, came up with an explanation for the Talmudic understanding of 'amito' that felt true and compelling.

Lindy said that perhaps the Rabbis were not using "'amito'", "persons who are akin to us in keeping the Torah and mitzvot" to limit the prohibition of verbal abuse and cruelty and to give license to hurt those outside of ourselves. What they were doing was simply noting a fact. The persons most likely to get hurt by our words are the people we are closest to, those in our family and our community. What they meant to say was that cruel words for the most part don't really cause hurt to strangers. For them it is true the adage "sticks and stones...but names can never harm me".We have little power in their lives. What we say or feel matters little to them. But thats not true for those we are closest to. For them, as the refrain in the song goes, "You only hurt the one you love". Indeed the ones we love can be more severely hurt by our words than by our actions. Yet the oddity here is that the ones we are closest to we are typically least careful not to hurt with our words. We take license with our spouses, our children, our friends in ways we would never do with a stranger. We assume they won't take offence or worse, if offended, they won't complain.

It is to us the Torah is speaking. "Don't hurt with words he who is 'amito', the one you are so comfortable with you fail to respect." Yes, its true,its never right to be cruel in speech and with anyone. But the ones you have to worry about are the ones more similar to you, Observant like yourself, in your community, part of your family. It is them who we can most hurt. It is in addressing them that we need be most attentive to what we say and how we say it.

"You only hurt the one you love". Its a good thing to remember! Its a much more useful refrain then "sticks and stones may break my bones....".
Our task is to never minimize our capacity to hurt the ones we love with our words, so that we never cause them to suffer!

Shabbat Shalom

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