Choosing Words with Care – Kedoshim 5782

D'var Torah | Leviticus

The Torah emphatically teaches that “the alien must not be wronged” (Leviticus 19:32). The Hebrew word for alien is “ger.” The quintessential Biblical commentator, Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac of Troyes, known by his acronym RaShI (1040–1105), notes that the word “ger” is used int two different ways. In its Biblical context, a “ger” is a resident alien, a stranger who has taken up temporary residence in the land of Israel. Here, the command is not to take advantage of a newcomer, someone unfamiliar with local usage and practice whose ignorance could be exploited for personal gain by the unscrupulous. An example of taking advantage in a Canadian context would be convincing an immigrant that a “loonie” is more valuable than a “toonie” since a “toonie” is part silver while the “loonie” is all “gold.” In fact, the opposite is the case. The “toonie” carries twice the value of the “loonie.” In Rabbinic times, RaShI reminds his readers, a “ger” is a convert to Judaism. Here, the command to refrain from wronging a convert takes on a different character.


The Talmud (Bava Metzia 58b) explains that just as one can cause pain to another by taking advantage of him or her in business transactions (fraud would be a good example), one can cause pain to another through words. The classic instance of such misconduct is reminding a reformed sinner of his or her earlier misdeeds (“Remember how you were convicted of theft?” “Remember when you used to eat pork?” “Remember when you were suspended from school for fighting?”) or reminding a convert of his or her ancestry (“Remember how your parents would take you to their church?”).


Words matter. Words can elevate or denigrate. Words can hurt or heal. Words can encourage or discourage. The challenge before each and every person each and every day is to choose his or her words with care.


Maimonides notes that there are numerous commandments in the Torah requiring special care towards converts because they are particularly dear to God and worthy of special respect. It is of particular concern to watch our language when speaking to converts. Indeed, it is our obligation to watch our language when speaking to anyone.




Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Rabbi Allen on Twitter