This week’s Torah portion, Tazria (Leviticus 12:1-13:59) discusses tzara’at, a skin disease understood in rabbinic tradition as punishment for lashon hara, evil speech. The public retribution is that the afflicted person suffers so that we see the powerful warning for us to “guard our tongues.” It was with words that God created the world, and our words have potential to build, create, and sustain life and human dignity, or to be a source of pain and destruction.
The potential of language extends beyond the specific case of lashon hara. Even praise, it seems, can backfire. I learned that Psychologist Carol Dweck investigated what happened when one group of students were commended for their intelligence while another group of students were praised for their effort when completing the same series of learning tasks. Interestingly, when the focus was on the students’ intelligence, they stopped trying—they became risk-averse and their performance suffered. In contrast, students praised for their effort demonstrated greater resilience—they eagerly tackled new academic challenges and their performance improved. Intelligence (and a host of other traits), are not, in fact, fixed—with determination and hard work we can develop these characteristics. We have the mechanism; we have remarkable potential.
Tazria contains a cautionary tale—a reminder of the power of language. Dweck’s research arrives at a complementary conclusion: Even when we have good intentions, we need to be wary of our linguistic choices. Our words can be limiting and damaging; they can reinforce our beliefs in fixed abilities and hinder our creative, intellectual, and human potential. Or, instead, our words can affirm our capacity to change, improve, and meet life’s challenges with honesty, ingenuity, and strength.
Tonight on this Shabbat evening , Samantha and I, along with 18 of our Post-Confirmation students, are in Atlanta, Georgia and tomorrow, we will be in Birmingham, Selma and Montgomery, Alabama, taking a civil rights tour. We will learn of the tragedies and triumphs that took place in Alabama during the 1950s and 1960s which awakened an entire nation to the reality of racial injustice and hatred that affected African-Americans all over the country. We hopefully will experience the legacy of those who changed history through the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. We will walk in the footsteps of civil rights legends such as Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We will imagine the scene of Bloody Sunday and the victory of the Selma-to-Montgomery March as we cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. We will pay our respects at the site of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. We will visit the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, also known as the Lynching Museum. Throughout all fo this, we hope to grow in empathy and understanding as we explore the museums and historic sites that commemorate those who changed history. You see, words do matter and we will remember to help others learn respect, dignity and peace.