What’s the harm?
Parshas Emor concludes with the tragic episode of the man who cursed Hashem (R”l). Initially, B’nei Yisrael were unsure of what should happen to the offender, so they placed him in jail while Moshe consulted Hashem. In response, Hashem taught Moshe the laws of blasphemy and the harsh capital punishment for one who commits this egregious crime (VaYikra 24:14-16).
And then, seemingly out of nowhere, Hashem reviews the general laws of damages, such as the repercussions for physically injuring or killing a fellow person or his animal (ibid. vv. 17-21). What are these laws doing here? Certainly, the Torah needed to introduce the procedure for dealing with a blasphemer, since the issue had just come up, and the laws had never been discussed before. But why repeat the laws of N’zikin (Damages), which had already been codified back in Parshas Mishpatim, and which had no bearing on the case at hand?
I once heard a beautiful explanation of this juxtaposition. Often, we forget that our words contain tremendous power. There is a famous expression, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” This saying is itself an example of the great havoc that words can wreak. The reality is that words can have destructive and crippling effects, be it on another’s reputation, professional prospects, or self-esteem. Cynical and disparaging words also can alienate others from faith in Hashem and in the validity of the Torah.
The example of blasphemy may seem extreme, but it represents the terrible danger that unbridled speech is capable of unleashing. To crystalize this point, the Torah groups the laws of harmful speech together with the laws of property damage, physical injury, and even murder to highlight that “words” truly do belong in the same category as “sticks and stones.”
While our everyday insults, slander, and deceptions may not rise to the capital nature of profaning the name of Hashem, we must remember that they still constitute a violation of the tzelem Elokim (representation of G-d) within each victim being maligned. In that sense, every example of improper speech is a microcosm of blasphemy. Deeper than any physical assault could ever cut, the emotional damage wrought by our words can pierce a person’s soul and internal sense of self. This may be because the power of speech is the essence of the life force within each person (Onkelos, B’reishis 2:7). If so, words contain the unique potential to access and affect the core of a person’s neshamah.
To truly acknowledge and honor the name of Hashem, one must also respect and consider the feelings of His creations. Understanding that hurtful speech belongs in the category of N’zikin can help shape our perspective on the true power we wield with every remark. As the correct, updated phrase goes, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will absolutely destroy me.”