Rabbi Joseph Telushkin/the book which will serve as the basis of his talk at the Adas Yeshurun Herzlia Synagogue May 9
By BERNIE BELLAN
One of the most important lessons I gleaned from reading Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s book, “Words That Hurt, Words That Heal – How the Words You Choose Shape Your Destiny”, is the long-lasting impact that a thoughtless remark can have on someone – even years after it was delivered.
In his book, which was first published in 1996, then republished just this year, Rabbi Telushkin offers a remarkable series of anecdotes to illustrate that point. If I had to single one particular story out for how much it resonated, it is a story he tells of the late, great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov.

 

 

As Telushkin relates it, Asimov was a “fifteen-year-old high school student. Asimov had enrolled in a writing class taught by a man named Max N. The teacher’s first assignment was to have the students write an essay. When he asked for volunteers to read their efforts before the class, Asimov raised his hand. ‘I had read only about a quarter of it’, he recalls in his memoirs, ‘when N. stopped me and used an opprobrious barnyard term to describe my writing. I had never heard a teacher use a ‘dirty word’ before and I was shocked. The class wasn’t however. They laughed at me very uproariously and I took my seat in bitter shame….’ Although hurt and humiliated, Asimov conceded then, and in his memoirs, that N.’s negative assessment of his writing was correct. He had attempted an affected literary style; what emerged was ‘absolutely, terminally rotten.’ So he took the teacher’s negative reaction to heart, and a few months later wrote a lighthearted piece that N. printed in the school’s literary journal; it was the first significant piece of work by Asimov that was ever published.
“But when he thanked N. for running the piece, the teacher wounded him again, saying he’d published it only because he needed a light piece to round out the issue, and every other submission had a serious tone.”
No matter how much acclaim Asimov may have achieved later in life, according to Rabbi Telushkin that humiliation at the hands of a teacher stuck with Asimov throughout his life.


In relating that story – along with many other anecdotes drawn from an impressive array of sources, Rabbi Telushkin is able to provide rich illustrations for the many lessons he delineates.
Sure, there are thousands of self-help books out there – and, as a general rule, I avoid reading them – not because I have nothing to learn from a self-help book, but mostly because I wonder whether it is realistic to think that someone (including me) can really modify one’s behaviour as a result of reading a book. But, I chose to read Rabbi Telushkin’s book because I thought it important to let readers know what a treat they’d be in for if they were to attend his lecture on May 9th at the Adas Yeshurun Herzlia Synagogue, which is to be based upon “Words That Hurt, Words That Heal”.
Divided into five parts: “The Unrecognized Power of Words”; “How We Speak About Others”; “How We Speak to Others”; “Words That Heal”; and “What Do We Do Now?”, Rabbi Telushkin combines lessons in Jewish (and non-Jewish) ethics, psychology, Talmudic wisdom, and multiple other sources into a rich series of lessons how almost all of us go so wrong, so often.


Here is Rabbi Telushkin on while it is so  human to gossip, we should at least try to restrict it: “The Talmud, with its realistic assessment of human nature, suggests that almost everyone, even a person with the best intentions, utters a ‘negative truth’ at least once daily. Reviewing the principles of ethical speech regularly will achieve one important effect: Although you may still gossip, you will do less of it. And you will probably be less cruel in discussing others. If you do gossip, severely limit the amount of time you spend doing so, and restrict your comments to a spouse (or a close boyfriend or girlfriend) and perhaps one or two close friends.”
While the edition of “Words That Hurts, Words That Heal” that I read was written in a time that predates both the advent of social media and Donald Trump – it would be interesting to ask Rabbi Telushkin for his take on gossip in 2019 – and how much more it seems to captivate us. For instance, in one of the anecdotes he draws upon to warn us of the dangers of gossip, he tells the story of Oliver Sipple, who was a decorated war hero. During President Gerald Ford’s presidency, in 1975, Sipple was credited with saving President Ford’s life during an assassination attempt. According to Rabbi Telushkin, when reporters came to “interview Sipple, he had only one request: ‘Don’t publish anything about me.’ “
It turned out that Sipple was gay – and his request for privacy only spurned reporters on. He was outed – isolated by his family, and began drinking heavily. Sipple died at age 47 – found alone in his apartment.
How commonplace it has now become for just about anyone who falls under a public spotlight to be subject to having secrets exposed. What may have been shocking back in 1975 – to have reporters digging for dirt about a real hero, is now routine. Is any public figure safe from rigorous scrutiny any more?


Rabbi Telushkin relates many other stories of humiliations suffered by ordinary individuals, including some grotesque remarks made by mothers or fathers to their sons and daughters about their looks, their weight, or their inability to perform up to the level expected by a particular parent. How much more difficult is it for children these days when they are subjected to constant on-line derision for the same things?
Many of the lessons Rabbi Telushkin has to offer are drawn either from the Torah or the Talmud. He tells the story of the prophet Nathan being careful not to admonish Kind David directly over David’s having committed adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of one of his officers, Uriah, and then having Uriah sent to battle where he was certain to be killed. Instead, Nathan is able to lead David into confronting his own wrongdoing without confronting him directly. Thus, instead of David reacting defensively, as he surely would have had Nathan rebuked him from the start, he comes to admit his guilt on his own.
In the same way, Rabbi Telushkin explains how anger so often stems from needlessly spoken words. “Through repeated questioning of audiences over the years, I have learned that perhaps half or more of all families have close relatives who no longer are on speaking terms. Almost invariably, the rift started with an argument that escalated, with one or both parties saying increasingly harsh things. The time to avoid making ugly comments is before they leave your mouth. Once they do, the other party might forgive; it is unlikely that he or she will forget. Would you?”


While there is more devoted to the subject of words that hurt than words that heal in “Words That Hurts, Words That Heal”, there are many important lessons about love in the book. Rabbi Telushkin tells the story of one particular rabbi’s Yom Kippur sermon – the most important sermon of the year, according to Rabbi Telushkin. The rabbi labeled his sermon, “ ‘Four Phrases to Live By.’ He urged the synagogue’s overflow crowd to ‘resolve that in this coming year you will learn to say four phrases more often than you have in the past: ‘Thank you.’ ‘I love you.’ ‘How are you? ‘What do you need?’ These four short statements and questions express gratitude, love, and caring, the three most important concerns that healing words can convey.”
In his final chapter, Rabbi Telushkin urges Americans to create a “Speak No Evil” day, which, he suggests, can become something like “Earth Day”. In fact, a resolution to that effect was actually introduced in the United States Senate in 1996. One wonders what Rabbi Telushkin would have to say now about the level of discourse, both public and private, which has descended to depths that he undoubtedly could never have imagined when he first wrote his book.