The Power of Speech by Arnold Zar-Kessler

There’s a very cute children’s book, Feathers: A Jewish Tale from Eastern Europe by Heather Forest, which recounts an 18th-century tale attributed to Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev about the nature and the limits of “sharing” what we’ve heard from others and what we, ourselves, feel.

In the book, a woman who has damaged the reputation of another person visits a rabbi and insincerely vows to make amends. The rabbi, fearing that she has not really learned a lesson, instructs her to take a feather pillow from her house, cut it up and scatter the feathers to the wind. After she had done so, she should then return to the rabbi’s house.

Though puzzled by this strange request, the woman is happy to be let off with such an easy penance. She quickly cuts up the pillow, scatters the feathers and returns to the rabbi’s house.

“Am I now forgiven?” she asks.

“Just one more thing,” the rabbi says. “Go now and gather up all the feathers.”

“But that’s impossible. The wind has already scattered them.”

“Precisely,” the rabbi answers. “And though you may truly wish to correct the evil you have done, it is as impossible to repair the damage done by your words as it is to recover the feathers. Your words are out there in the community and the wider world even as we speak.”

The book is wonderful, largely because it recounts a tale that is every bit – perhaps even more – as significant for us today than it may have been 200 years ago. It is particularly pertinent for young people who now have access to technology that can spread their words – like the feathers of the tale’s pillow – far and wide.

We teach children that “Internet literacy” includes the lessons of Feathers – that once their words are out there on Facebook, Twitter, email and the like, there is almost no way for them to be taken back. And if those words are hurtful to another, that wound will likely live on with potentially thousands of others connected to those words.

We see the trail of such episodes almost daily in the news; emails that officials would love to take back; postings that do more damage than good and comments, perhaps sent in a moment of haste, that are now “in the wind.”

This is perhaps a lesson not only for the children. With so many of us using Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn (and probably a dozen other applications that I’ve never heard of), we can all be models for our children and each other in watching our speech – both literal and virtual. We can re-dedicate ourselves to finding ways to share what we learn and we feel in ways that build up and not tear down.

When we work to become those role models, each of us can be a better teacher for our children, and will help to shape a world for them – and for those we care about – that is just a touch more caring and kind. Our tradition teaches that Mavet v’hayyim b’yad la-shon – life and death is in the power of speech. May our words (and texts, postings and emails) always reflect our commitment to bringing more life into the world, for us and for our children.