Avot 1:11: Avtalyon says: Sages, be careful with your words, lest you incur the penalty of exile and be banished to a place of toxic water. The students who follow you there may drink and die, and the Name of Heaven will be desecrated.
For generations, American children have learned the mantra, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” The point is clear—while physical violence may injure us, verbal attacks need not do us any harm.
This idiom strikes me as nonsense, and decidedly not Jewish. In our tradition, the power of words, to harm or to heal, is unparalleled. The Talmud teaches: “Anyone who insults or humiliates another in public—it is as though they were spilling blood.” Hate speech is murderous. As one of our most well-known folk parables recognizes, cruel and callous words can never be fully retracted; once spoken, they scatter through the world like wind-driven feathers. Today, with social media’s capacity to amplify the spread of words by unfathomable magnitudes, we are collectively drowning in the toxic tide of insult and insinuation.
Avtalyon directs his warning toward his peers, the rabbinic sages and scholars of his generation. They bear the responsibility of leading by example, for as Avtalyon notes, students are strongly drawn to follow their teachers. In our own age, when we are all effectively armed with a booming high-tech megaphone, we share the leader’s privilege and burden of modeling kind and compassionate speech. The next generation is watching, listening, and learning from us.