On Monday evening, November 23, this writer had the honor of speaking on behalf of the Congregation Ahavas Yisroel Women’s League on Zoom. The shiur was dedicated in memory of my father, Moshe ben Avraham HaLevi.
I began with the following statement: “It’s amazing how just a few words can totally transform a person’s life. Think of times in your life when someone said something to you that had a big impact on your life.”
I love to read biographies, and I’ve been noticing how the people I am reading about used the gift of speech to influence others in such dramatic ways. Below are just a few such stories.
I’ll start with the famous story of Reish Lakish, a leader of robbers. One time, when Rav Yochanan went for a swim, Reish Lakish saw him and mistook his beauty for that of a woman and he dove into the water. Rav Yochanan said to him, “You should use your strength for Torah.”
Reish Lakish responded that he should use his beauty to court women. Rav Yochanan realized that Reish Lakish valued beauty, so he told him, “If you do t’shuvah and learn Torah, then you can marry my sister who is more beautiful than me.”
Rav Yochanan’s words had an amazing affect. Reish Lakish did t’shuvah and became a Torah scholar, and they became Torah partners and brothers-in-law. It’s amazing how Rav Yochanan focused only on the potential of Reish Lakish and ignored any negatives. The results speak for themselves.
Another example of how words can build a world is the famous story about the N’tziv, who overheard a conversation that changed the course of his life. When he was a little boy, he wasn’t working hard in his Torah studies, and one night he overheard his parents speaking about him. They felt bad, but decided that he should leave yeshivah and train to be a shoemaker. He begged his parents to give him another chance. Hearing this motivated him to work harder and he became the N’tziv.
An additional example of words changing how people view something is the way the Lubavitcher Rebbe was so careful to use only positive words. The hospital in Israel was named Bet Cholim and he said it should be changed to Beit Refuah which is more positive. He didn’t like the word “deadline” and preferred “due date.” “Disabled veterans” he called “exceptional veterans” and “retarded people” were “special.” He didn’t like to say the word “evil.” Instead, he would say “the opposite of good.” In the song Ani Maamin, he would hum over the words “Even if he may tarry,” as it had a negative prediction.
The following are some stories about the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s words that had incredible impact on individuals and the world. In 1968, Shirley Chisholm became the first black woman elected to Congress. In those days, there were senior and influential Southern Democratic Congressmen who were racist, and they assigned her to a totally absurd appointment for a Congresswoman from Brooklyn: the Agriculture Committee. She wanted to work on education and labor issues, and she was furious.
The Rebbe asked her to meet with him. In the meeting, he said to her, “I know you’re upset.”
She said she was insulted and upset, and she asked him what she should do.
The Rebbe responded, “What a blessing G-d has given you. This country has so much surplus food and there are so many hungry people, and you can use this gift that G-d has given you to feed hungry people. Find a creative way to do it.”
On her first day in Congress, she met Robert Dole, the Kansas Congressman who told her the midwestern farmers were producing more food than they could sell and they were losing money on their crops. She worked with Dole and on her own and she expanded the Food Stamp Program. In 1973, the Agriculture and Consumer Protection Act ordered that Food Stamps be made available in every jurisdiction in the United States. She played a critical role in the creation of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), which mandated food supplements for high-risk pregnant women and for young children at nutritional risk. Millions of people receive WIC benefits each month today.
Chisholm shared the story of her meeting with the Rebbe and her work on behalf of Food Stamps and WIC at a 1983 retirement breakfast in her home. She said, “A rabbi who is an optimist taught me that what you think is a challenge is a gift from G-d.” She added, “If poor babies have milk and poor children have food, it’s because this Rebbe in Crown Heights had vision.”
Another story happened with two African American men, James E. Davis and Geoffrey A. Davis, who founded an organization called “Love Yourself, Stop the Violence.” The organization is dedicated to halting inner-city gun crime and drug abuse. Geoffrey Davis revealed in a 2012 interview that the inspiration for much of his work and even the name of the organization was the Rebbe.
He and his brother grew up in Brooklyn, a block from the Rebbe’s house. The brothers used to play ball in the street, and the Rebbe, walking home from shul, would stop and chat with them. Once, the two brothers got into a heated argument over a ball game, and the Rebbe walked by. After telling them to behave, the Rebbe added words that changed the brothers’ lives.
“Love your brother as you love yourself. And love yourself as you love your brother, because you are one, so love yourself.”
At the time, they didn’t know who he was – just that he was nice and used to give them each a dollar. Geoffrey Davis shared, “We have his picture hanging in our house, not because he was the Grand Rebbe, but because he was our friend, somebody who took a liking to two children. He didn’t look like us, but he opened the door for us to communicate and to embrace all human beings.”
In addition, there are so many incredible stories about Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis. After the Six-Day War, the Rebbetzin wanted to do something for the wounded soldiers, so she created a Hineni medallion that she brought to Israel and gave out to wounded soldiers whom she visited in the hospital.
In one hospital room, there was a soldier who was so badly burned he was almost completely wrapped in gauze. She tried to speak to him but he wouldn’t respond. She told him that she was leaving him a medallion and he told her to take it away.
She said it will be a present for his kallah.
He laughed a bitter laugh and said, “No girl will marry me. Look at me; I’m no longer a ben adam.”
She was quiet a moment and then she said, “You’re right that you’re not a ben adam. You’re a mal’ach Hashem. You are a special person, and I am sure you will find happiness in your life.” She told him that we have a tradition that every person has someone destined for him. “This is true for you as much as for everyone else. Do not fear. You will see that you, too, will meet the girl who is right for you. When that happens, be sure to tell her of our meeting and how a rebbetzin came to see you and told you that you have tremendous z’chuyos that you are prepared to share with her. Tell her everything. Tell her the whole story and make sure to explain to her that the medallion I left for you in the hospital is a reminder and a symbol of everything I said.”
He still objected that no one would marry him and they’d just think he was crazy.
She said, “You’re wrong. She won’t think that at all. You will find the perfect girl and, remember, all you need is one, and when you find her, tell her that when you get married, the two of you are going to share your portion in Olam HaBa.”
A year later, she was visiting Israel and speaking in recuperation centers. She went to one in Haifa, and someone in a wheelchair was brought over to her with a bouquet in his lap. He asked her if she recognized him. She said that he looked familiar and he said, “I’m the soldier who was wrapped like a mummy. You left me a gift and I told you to take it away.”
“Yes, I remember,” she replied with tears in her eyes.
“Rebbetzin, I’d like you to meet my wife.” He introduced her to the nurse standing behind his chair – a young, smiling Yemenite woman. She was wearing the medallion.
Another story about Rebbetzin Jungreis took place when she reserved Madison Square Garden and spoke to a packed audience. She gave a speech called “You Are a Jew.” The words she imparted that night in this speech changed many lives.
She said, “You are a Jew. You have traveled the four corners of the earth. You have become a part of every people and yet you have remained a people apart. You have known oppression. You have experienced every form of persecution. Your body has been scorched by fire. You have forgotten your past. But there is one prayer – one little prayer – that you cannot forget: a prayer that speaks of your own mission in life. It is a prayer that has been a beacon of faith throughout the centuries of darkness, a prayer that has brought you back to the faith of your ancestors, a prayer that speaks of your own mission in life.” She then recited the first line of Sh’ma and the audience joined her and erupted into applause. Still another story about Rebbetzin Jungreis took place when she was flying a red-eye flight from Portland, Oregon, after a speaking engagement. She was tired and wanted to sleep but the young man next to her asked if she was from Portland. She explained that she was in a synagogue giving a speech there. He said, “Synagogue is not for me.”
She found out that he was Jewish, and he didn’t feel it was anything important to him. Meals were being distributed; he had ordered a ham and cheese sandwich.
Rebbetzin Jungreis told him, “You can’t have that sandwich.”
“What do you mean? I eat ham and cheese all the time.”
“You just told me you were born a Jew. So don’t eat that. Ask for something else.”
He was getting upset at her.
“I do not practice the Jewish religion. I do whatever I want. Stop telling me what to do.”
“It’s not me telling you what to do. It is you. You signed a binding contract that doesn’t allow you to eat that, along with every other Jew at Mt. Sinai.” She told him that it was in the Torah.
He wouldn’t speak to her the rest of the flight. At the luggage area, he told her she was nuts.
She handed him her card. She said, “Call me when you’re ready. I have an organization called Hineni, where I guide people like you. I’m serious. Everything I’m telling you is documented. In fact, I’ll be happy to give you a guided tour of your religion and heritage. Just a little bit of learning and your entire life will change.”
A few years passed, and she was teaching a class when a stranger entered, dressed like a yeshivah bachur. He came over and asked if she remembered him. She said he looked familiar – her standard line if she didn’t recognize someone. He told her that he was the man who sat next to her on the plane from Oregon. He told her that he had to see if she was telling the truth and he discovered that she was. He asked her for a favor. “Can you help me find a girl to marry who also signed that document at Sinai?”
When Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks was young, he had many questions, and he set out for America to meet with the 50 most prominent rabbanim. He posed his questions to them, and they answered the q uestions.
There was one person, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who answered them and then posed a question to Rabbi Sacks. “Things are wrong,” the Rebbe said. “Are you willing to be one of those who help to put them right?”
Rabbi Sacks stated, “I had been told that the Rebbe was a man with thousands of followers. After I met him, I understood that the opposite was the case. A good leader creates followers. A great leader creates leaders.” Rabbi Sacks eventually became a rabbi, then principal for the Jews’ College, and then Chief Rabbi of Great Britain. One of his books, To Heal a Fractured World, he said, “was part payment of a debt I incurred to a great Jewish leader many years ago.”
Still another story of someone impacting others with words is one of my favorite stories about a muffin.
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach once went for breakfast to a dingy restaurant presided over by a homely, sour cook who was also the waitress. She served coffee and a muffin in a way that was almost rude.
After Rabbi Carlebach tasted the muffin, he waved her over. He asked her, “My most beautiful friend, are you the one who made this muffin?”
She said, “Yeah, what about it?”
He said, “It’s the most delicious muffin I ever tasted in my life.”
She said with a hint of a smile, “Thanks.”
Rabbi Carlebach wasn’t done. “And also, I want you to know that I have eaten muffins all over the world, but none came close to this one.”
“Thanks again,” she said.
“And mamash I have to thank you because I was so hungry and you did me the greatest favor in the world by so expertly baking this muffin, which is surely a taste of the World to Come.”
She was smiling broadly now.
He then asked her about the ingredients, and she told him all about her cooking and baking techniques. He was specific about complimenting the texture of the muffin. It was light and airy, buttery and fragrant. It was warmed expertly.
The friend who told the story was watching Shlomo Carlebach, but when he turned to look at the woman, the homely woman was no more. She was transformed. She had become beautiful.
We all know how important words are, and the value the Torah places on being careful with our speech. There are so many examples in Tanach of people being careful with their words and how their words impacted others. In Parshas Toldos, Yitzchak is careful not to mention the name of the person who took the brachah. He tells Eisav that the person who came before him took the brachah. When Yosef reveals himself to his brothers and says, “I am Yosef,” those words changed the brothers’ whole perspective. They realized they were wrong for selling their brother.
There is a story that took place with Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian during one of Israel’s wars. He was in a shelter and bombs were falling. His student came over and told him that people were speaking lashon ha’ra in the shelter. He told his student that they had to leave and find another shelter. They left immediately. Later, they learned that the shelter where they had been before took a direct hit.
Words can build a world. We say this every morning when we recite Baruch SheAmar. We say, Baruch she’amar v’hayah ha’olam. Hashem spoke and there was a world. Hashem created the world with words.
Before Sh’moneh Esrei, we ask Hashem to open our lips, and at the end we ask him to guard our tongue from saying anything wrong. Words are so powerful that they can create a whole world; they can build a person up to reach the stars, or they can, G-d forbid, hurt and destroy. One of my favorite chapters of T’hilim is #45, which says, “My tongue is the tool of an expert writer.” I love this idea of using our speech in such a careful, beautiful way.
I concluded with sharing something my father said to me that influenced one of the most important decisions of my life.
After attending a public high school in Pennsylvania, I was attending Penn State University, which is located in State College in the middle of Pennsylvania in the “Bible Belt.” When I was there, there were lots of students who were involved with missionaries and looking to convert Jewish students.
My dorm was in the epicenter of those missionaries. Anyway, I had started keeping Shabbos and I had thought about transferring to Yeshiva University. My father took me for the interview, where I discovered that Stern College was for women. I wasn’t sure how I would get married if I attended an all-women’s school, and I wasn’t sure if I would fit in there. So, I decided to go back to Penn State.
My father drove me the four hours to State College. We passed beautiful mountains. As we drove, he said one thing that I’ll always remember: “It’s a shame you had a chance to discover your roots – your heritage.”
That was all he said. I thought about those words during that long trip, and when we arrived, I remember I got this sinking feeling, thinking about all those missionaries, and the words he said echoed in my mind. I took a deep breath and then I told my father, “I want to transfer to Stern.”
He said, “Sure.”
We called the Office of Admissions, and they said I could come; then he drove me four hours back home and, well, the rest is history.
I’m sure my father must be happy, seeing all his frum grandchildren and now also his great-grandchildren. I am so grateful for his words and his support of that decision.
May we all use our words in the positive way that Hashem wants, in order to build worlds and bring Mashiach right now!
The references for the above stories are the following incredible biographies: Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin; The Rebbetzin: The Story of Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis – Her Life, Her Vision, Her Legacy by Rabbi Nachman Seltzer; Holy Brother: Inspiring Stories and Enchanted Tales about Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach by Yitta Halberstam Mandelbaum.