Nitzavim: On the power of a single word or action

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Deuteronomy 29:9-31:30

Isaiah 55:6-56:8

A doctor moved his practice to a larger office. Much to his surprise he received congratulatory flowers from colleagues with a card that read, "Deepest Sympathy."

When the embarrassed florist called the doctor to apologize for his mistake, he revealed that the flowers and card intended for the doctor were accidentally sent to a funeral along with the message, "Congratulations on your new location."

This mishap characterizes those most embarrassing moments when words are spoken in error without intention to damage or hurt others or ourselves.

Unintended or accidental speech is not a sin of the same magnitude as malevolent words clearly spoken with the aim of hurting another. Termed lashon harah in Hebrew, malicious gossip damages the speaker, the listener and the one spoken of; it can destroy relationships and even lives.

The scars of slander are not always visible, but their effects often are felt for a lifetime. This story about the power of one seemingly insignificant action illustrates the point:

Richard III was preparing for the 1485 battle against the army of Henry, Earl of Richmond, to decide which of them would rule England.

On the morning before the conflict, Richard's groom took his horse to the blacksmith. The blacksmith was short one nail to complete the job of reshoeing Richard's horse. Rather than wait, the groom left, hoping that the shoe would hold without the last nail.

Once in battle, Richard galloped toward his retreating soldiers to encourage them to fight, but his horse's shoe flew off. As the horse stumbled, Richard was thrown to the ground.

Seeing his troops retreat, he waved his sword and shouted the lines immortalized by Shakespeare, "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse." Moments later, Richard was dead.

That fateful day is remembered in George Herbert's nursery rhyme:

"For want of a nail, a shoe was lost,/For want of a shoe, a horse was lost,/For want of a horse, a battle was lost,/For want of a battle, a kingdom was lost,/And all for the want of a horseshoe nail."

The major emphasis of the Yom Kippur confession of sin, which asks forgiveness for 44 sins, is the 10 sins of speech.

Nitzavim, half of this week's double Torah portion and the reading for Yom Kippur, helps a worshipper understand the power of one word or action by admonishing individuals to choose life over death, blessing over curse:

"This Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, `Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?'

"Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, `Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?' No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it" (Deuteronomy 30:11-14).

This passage emphasizes how a well-chosen word can make a difference, to create blessing in the form of reassurance.

It is a kind word spoken by a teacher to a student that bolsters self-confidence. It is a gentle word spoken by a husband to a wife that turns icy silence into a moment of reprieve for a fallen relationship.

It is a word of encouragement spoken to a fearful child that fortifies him to meet the challenges of his world. It is a commitment given by an employer to an employee that makes the worker work harder because he or she feels appreciated.

It is a call that reprieves years of estrangement between family members or friends.

The verse quoted above ends with the declaration, "ki karov hadavar eilecha, the word is very close to you." The word "karov" means more than "very close," it also means "inside" or "within."

It is a reminder that words come not only from within, but they are also written on hearts of the speaker and the listener.

Thus, the approach of the coming New Year bids Jews to pause and consider the power of our words because Nitzavim teaches that just one word spoken in haste or with care has the power to harm or heal.