Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can crush my self-esteem, lead to depression, anxiety, and other life-long mental and physical health challenges. Verbal abuse is no less damaging than other forms of abuse. Physical, sexual, emotional, and verbal abuse are all interpersonally damaging and morally reprehensible. Yet, as the original “sticks and stones” adage hints at, many people underestimate the damage that can be inflicted with “just” words.
In Parshat Mishpatim, the Torah delineates dozens of interpersonal commandments, reflecting the vigilance we must demonstrate regarding other people’s property and the care we must take to protect them from physical damage. While both categories of laws are extremely important, the third category, the sensitivity to how our words impact another’s emotional space, often gets overlooked. In a striking passage, God commands us to “not cause pain to any widow or orphan,” with the consequence of violating this law being that “if you cause him pain and he calls out to me, I will hear his outcry. My wrath will blaze and I shall kill you by the sword, and your wives will be widows and your children orphans" (Shemot 22:21-23).
According to the commentators, the pain being described in these verses includes physical and financial pain, as well as emotional distress caused by verbal abuse (see Ralbag). The harsh punishment described reflects the seriousness and egregiousness of the crime being committed. In the Torah, the orphan and the widow represent people who are vulnerable and do not have family to protect them. Through the commandment and the punishment, God acts as their protectors.
The ramifications of this concept are broader than we may think. While the verses specify the widow and the orphan, Rashi quoting the Mechilta, argues that it is forbidden to oppress anybody. The Torah provided common examples of people who may be vulnerable and sensitive, but oppressing anyone is forbidden. Additionally, based on the double language of “im anei te-aneh” (“if you cause him pain”), the Mechilta further suggests that the prohibition is not only violated with a large affliction, but even a small affliction is forbidden.
Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski points to a different part of Parshat Mishpatim to underscore the same message. Both one who strikes his parent and one who curses his parent is punished with death (Shemot 21:15 & 17). Yet, as Rashi points out, the form of the death sentence for the one who curses his parent is more severe than the punishment for the person who strikes his parent. Different explanations are given for why this is, but at its basic level, Rabbi Dr. Twerski argues that this demonstrates the severity of the damage that could be done through verbal abuse. Perhaps because, as Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchok Ruderman argues, verbal abuse is more prevalent and generally overlooked as being problematic, the Torah makes the consequences more severe.
While Parshat Mishpatim exhorts us to stay away from any form of interpersonal damage, perhaps, because it is often overlooked, it is warranted to place an added emphasis on being sensitive to the damage we can do with our words.