Rick is going to purchase a new pair of glasses from an online discount store but is not sure which pair to buy. He goes to an optician, tries on many pairs of glasses and after a half hour with the salesperson, finds the pair that suits him. He then goes home and buys the glasses online. Did Rick do anything wrong? The short answer is yes; the long answer has its source in this week’s Parsha, which lists two instances of the Torah instructing us not to misuse our power of speech.
When you make a sale or buy from your fellow, do not afflict him. And you shall not take advantage (“afflict”) of one another, and you shall fear your G-d, for I am Hashem your G-d. (ibid. 25:14,17)
These two verses refer to two types of affliction: the first is cheating (afflicting) in monetary matters; e.g. telling a customer that a fake Rolex is the real thing. The second is ‘cheating’ (afflicting) a person with words. If Jacob is looking for someone to date and (as a prank) you suggest Shoshana, who has been happily married for the past year, you will cause either one or both of them to be embarrassed. In short, you cannot use words to deceive or cause emotional pain to someone. Rick was deceiving the optician, who thought he was considering buying a pair of glasses from her. (Clarification: There is nothing wrong with Rick checking various opticians and then going to the one with the best price but in the case above Rick knew that no one would be able to compete with the online site he had found. He was taking the time of the optician under false pretenses.)
Another case of using words to cause someone emotional pain is by bringing up foolish behavior that a person did in his or her youth or at some other time that you think is a funny subject to bring up at a party but the person about whom you are speaking is embarrassed and has told you so. “Do you remember the time when …” is a harmful phrase when the person in the story would rather not have it repeated.
The examples are numerous but the rule is simple; whenever one misuses the power of speech to mislead or hurt feelings, it is called onas devarim, taking advantage of or afflicting. We all know about the power of doing a positive mitzvah such as giving tzedaka, helping out a person in need, or volunteering time to a worthy cause but many are unfamiliar with the concept of a negative mitzvah. When one does something the Torah prohibits, it is called a negative mitzvah. Judaism is not just about Sabbath observance, eating kosher, praying, and other endeavors, it also enjoins us to avoid negative behavior.
Which is worse, afflicting someone in monetary matters (the Rolex example) or afflicting someone with words? At first one might consider monetary affliction worse because when hurting a person emotionally, only causes his or her thoughts or feelings will be affected whereas cheating someone financially causes the loss of tangible objects, a business or even career. The Talmud gives two reasons why hurting someone with words (onaas devarim) is considered a greater evil than cheating someone financially. With regard to hurting someone with painful words, the verse (quoted above) concludes, “and you will fear your G-d,” but there is no mention of G-d when the prohibition of monetary cheating is mentioned. Why isn’t G-d mentioned in the prohibition of cheating someone financially?
People are likely to notice when someone is trying to cheat someone out of his/her money but one might hide his/her one’s true intentions when saying harmful words. For example, Steve might tell Alan how impressed he is that Alan has been able to hold down a job and be so responsible when in the not too distant past he (Alan), used to smoke pot before, during and after work and could never hold down a job. The fact that Alan came from a dysfunctional family made it even harder to believe. If Alan has put those chapters out of his life and doesn’t ever like them mentioned, especially in front of other people, no one is permitted to bring up those subjects. Steve, however, might justify his remarks by saying, “I was just complimenting him” but in reality Steve might have had had other intentions. It could be jealousy, fear that Alan was about to be promoted, or some other reason to want people to think that he (Steve) was superior to him (Alan). Therefore, the verse ends with the admonition to fear G-d and realize that He knows one’s intentions; but why isn’t G-d mentioned in the verse discussing cheating someone financially?
When one damages an object, s/he can easily rectify the situation by reimbursing the person with the value of the object. There is an objective price to the damage and even without G-d, a human understands this and can be compensated. However, when harmful words are said, they attack the person himself, not merely his or her possessions. Our emotions sometimes fluctuate due to words said to us. A few words of encouragement are what some people attribute their success in life to; it was that one person who believed in them and told them so. However, when misused, the power of speech is the cause of lack of self-esteem and even depression. People spend years in therapy for being called a loser, stupid, no good or lazy. Words do far greater damage to a person that causing someone a monetary loss.
The next time we are about to say something negative, sarcastic, or make a joke at someone else’s expense, we should take a moment to pause and ask ourselves, “would I take a sledgehammer and smash this person’s windshield? If I make a joke about my wife, husband, child, or coworker that evokes a nervous smile or other sign of embarrassment or emotional pain, I am doing something far worse than breaking a windshield; I am breaking human being.” This is a Jewish crucial life tool for working on damage control for the soul.
(Sources: Bava Metzia 58b; Maharsha