"A Light unto the Nations": The Power of our Words
We often think about the impact that our voices can have on a large scale, but it’s equally important to think about the power of our words on a personal and immediate level. Judaism teaches that speech distinguishes humans from other animals and helps us to emulate G-d. My Judaism guides me to use my words in order to lead a mindful life of gratitude. In fact, the word “Jew,” is related to “lehodot” which means to thank. Jews are a people defined by gratitude. I'm thankful for my power of speech and seek to use it wisely every day. Using my words to share gratitude and positivity is my way of embodying a “light unto the nations,” my Jewish imperative.
Words spoken can never be taken back. “You have a huge nose!” someone shouted at me in the first grade. I never noticed my nose before, but suddenly every time I looked in the mirror, it was all seven-year-old me could see. Those five words manifested into a painful insecurity that took me years to shake. You never know how your words will impact someone, or for how long. This boy was easily overcome by his impulse to tease me. Maybe the behavior can be excused because he was young and didn’t know yet how to guard his tongue, so he used his words as a weapon, destructively and inflicting pain. However, even ten years later, I myself am still challenged to not speak impulsively and to gain control over my words. I challenge myself every day to avoid harmful speaking patterns that are so easy to fall into.
A common example of this harmful speech is gossip, or “lashon hora.” Literally translated as “evil tongue,” lashon hora is one of the most serious offenses. By restraining myself from spreading or listening to gossip, I gain power from restraint and diminish the power of the negative words that others try to spread. My control over words extends from those words I try not to hear, to those I try not to say. I also work to avoid speaking impulsively, especially when it comes from anger or frustration. When I'm frustrated, it's easy for me to resort to profanity or an unkind tone as a way of expressing my aggravation. By resisting this urge, I overcome my yetzer hara (negative inclination) and have more self-control, saving my power for good. When I use my words rashly, shouting in anger, or with disrespectful sarcasm, I'm neglecting my positive potential, indulging my yetzer hara, and inflicting pain on those around me. I'm not spreading “light”; I'm spreading hate, and a general disregard for the impact of my speech. Just as I can refrain from using my words to spread hate and evil, I can also share my words to spread light and positivity. Judaism teaches us that everyone has intrinsic worth simply because they exist. I aim to use my words to help others see their value, often through compliments.
During my freshman year I was experimenting with style, and I chose to be bold with a pair of what I like to call “artisan overalls.” When I wore them, one of the coolest, most stylish seniors complimented me on them. What a transformative compliment! I was beaming with joy and renewed confidence. Since then, I have been bold in my style and bold with my compliments. Whenever I think of something that I admire about someone, and I have the chance, I say it. Why should I keep my compliments to myself? The person might already know they did something well or look really nice, but maybe they don’t; maybe my compliment will have a positive impact on them that I can’t anticipate.
My words also sanctify the things around me and help me recognize everything I have to be grateful for. Throughout the day I try to say blessings over my food and use my words to bring holiness and mindfulness into my life. It takes two seconds to say a blessing that will remind me that my food is not something to take for granted. I shouldn't feel entitled to anything. Some Jewish scholars go so far as to say that eating food without a blessing is stealing, because you aren’t acknowledging that all of your food comes from Hashem. Saying a simple and quick phrase every time I eat or drink dramatically changes the way I view seemingly trivial things. Judaism also asks one to say a prayer of gratitude after using the bathroom. It's easy for me to take for granted the miraculous systems of the body that allow me to do something as small (but important) as using the bathroom. Saying the blessing “Asher yatzar…” takes under a minute, but the impact lasts much longer. I start the day with “Modah ani…” (a prayer said upon waking that thanks Hashem for giving us another day). When I start my day with gratitude, I remind myself how lucky I am to have a new day ahead of me, and how lucky I am for everything I'm given.
I think that we frequently undervalue our words’ potential to spread positivity and kindness. As a Jews, I need to strive to be the “light unto the nations.” With each word I say, I can light a flame of positivity, kindness, gratitude, confidence, and growth. It’s my choice whether to be in the dark on the one hand, or to light a candle, or even a beacon, on the other. If everyone would use their words to compliment, express gratitude, and share positivity—to light a flame everyday—the world would be a much brighter place.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.
How to cite this page
Peck, Lilah. ""A Light unto the Nations": The Power of our Words." 6 January 2020. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on November 30, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/power-our-words>.