In their book Words Can Change Your Brain, Drs. Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman describe research they conducted on the harmful impact that negative words have on our brains. They used an fMRI scanner to record the brain activity of research participants while the participants were exposed to negative words like “NO!” They found that stress-producing hormones and neurotransmitters were released by the amygdala and interrupted regular brain activities that assist with logical thinking and effective communication. Even a single negative word or phrase, when focused upon for extended periods of time, can damage key brain structures that regulate memory and emotion. Verbalizing the negativity causes even more stress chemicals to be released, in both the speaker and the listener. Words and speech can change the structures in our brains, changing how we perceive and relate to ourselves and the world.
Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin points out that the three haftarot read during the three weeks preceding Tisha B’Av each begin with related, but different words. The first week begins with “Divrei,” the second with “Shim’u,” and the last with “Chazon.” These three words correspond to Dibbur, Shemiyah, and Re-iya, namely, speech, hearing, and seeing. The message and task for this week is to focus on recognizing the importance of speech and improving how we utilize it in our daily lives.
Famously, when the pasuk in Bereshit states that G-d blew in man’s nostrils, making him a “nefesh chaya,” Onkelos translates this term as Ruach Memamela, a speaking spirit. According to this approach, speech defines and distinguishes humans from other creatures. Maharal explains further that speech acts as the synthesis of our body and soul. This, Rabbi Akiva Tatz writes, is why our voice originates in the neck, at the junction of the head (representing the soul) and the rest of the body.
The centrality of speech to our spiritual lives is alluded to in the narrative of Parshat Pinchas and its surrounding parshiyot. In Parshat Balak we read about Bilam’s attempt to curse the Jewish people with words. While that particular endeavor failed, we are informed in Parshat Mattot that Bilam is the one responsible for influencing the licentious actions described at the end of Parshat Balak that leads to Pinchas’ act of zealotry, the aftermath of which is presented in this week’s reading. As a punishment for his actions, we are told that Bilam was killed “be-charev” – with a sword. Rashi comments that Bilam originally came to provoke Bnei Yisrael using the tribes’ own specialty, that of speech. Bnei Yisrael worship G-d through prayer and Bilam had the nerve to try and use the power of negative speech—a curse—to destroy them. As a consequence, Bilam was killed by Bnei Yisrael not with their usual mode of speech, but with the weapon of choice for the other nations, namely, a sword.
Toward the end of Parshat Pinchas, we are presented with details of various sacrifices that were to be brought in the Mishkan. One important function of the sacrifices was that they provided atonement for sins. In a fascinating passage, the Talmud presents a dialogue between Avraham and G-d, where Avraham is concerned with what would happen if the Jewish people sin. G-d reassures him that they will not be destroyed like the generation of the flood, because they have sacrifices to provide atonement. Avraham retorts, that is well and good when they have a Temple to bring the sacrifices, but what about afterwards? G-d answers that by learning and reciting the passages related to the sacrifices, that will provide the requisite atonement.
While our words undeniably have the power to change our brains, their significance does not stop there. Our recitation of Torah provides atonement. Our prayers characterize us as the Jewish people. Our speech defines us as human beings. As we approach the first of the three weeks, let us work on improving our speech and utilize the power of our words for meaningful purposes.