Remember when you were a child and someone insulted you, you’d reply: “Sticks and stoned may break my bones, but words will never harm me”? As you grow older, you appreciate that this is not true. Words can inflict as much pain- sometimes more- than physical blows.
A person can only injure you from close-up. Words can hurt you from a distance, over the phone for example, and even when you’re not around to hear them. When a person spreads Loshon Horah (negative information) about you, it harms you even without you knowing that anything’s been said. That’s why the Talmud compares words to arrows- once they’re out, you can’t take them back.
We accept that words can harm from far, without you knowing they’ve been said, but can they help from far as well?
Most people believe that Loshon Horah is bad because it spreads negativity about a person, tainting their image. That is true. But, it’s also bad because words create realities. What swims around in your mind remains theoretical; as soon as you mention it, it becomes tangible. Let’s say you notice that someone tends to be arrogant. You could mull over the problem and possibly guide them subtly towards modesty. Dong that, you would not have highlighted their problem, and you may even have solved it. Once you tell them (or others) that they are arrogant, you fuel that emotion, because words bring into reality something that floated potentially in the ether.
It works the other way too. You know that if you compliment someone, they will respond positively and probably behave that way again. Your positive words encourage them. Even when you talk well of them without them hearing it, you release positive arrows into the reality of the world and you subliminally encourage them from a distance. Positive-speak helps, even when the person who needs to hear it isn’t there.
Devorim, the name of the Parsha this week, means words. We always read this section on the Shabbos before Tisha B’Av, the day of Jewish national mourning. Tisha B’Av reminds us how our holiest site fell because we spoke ill of each other. Devorim reminds us that we can regain our Temple by speaking well of each other- when we speak to each other and when we speak about each other.