I (the Reverend) memorized a proverb (18:21) when I was a teenager.

Words kill, words give life;
they’re either poison or fruit—you choose

Over the years I have come to realize that this proverb doesn’t need a lot of interpretation. What I can do is state the obvious. This piece of wisdom applies to all of us—all day, every day. With our words each day we wield tremendous power. The power to bring life to people or to crush them. To build them up or tear them down. Every single day. All day. Every day.

A modern version of this idea was passed along by Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows “Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic. Capable of both inflicting injury, and remedying it.”

Apparently, wise people grasp the power of words. Wise people understand that words can pierce like swords, can penetrate hearts and souls. A word spoken rashly or in anger can destroy a relationship, a reputation, a future, a family, trust.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin has written and spoken a lot on this topic. He is the author of Words That Hurt, Words That Heal and has lectured throughout this country on the powerful, often negative impact of words. He is renowned for his wisdom. I recommend anything he writes. He often asks audiences if they can go 24 hours without saying any unkind words about or to another person. Invariably, a small number of listeners raise their hands, signifying “Yes.” Others laugh, and quite a few call out, “No!” Telushkin responds: “Those who can’t answer ‘yes’ must recognize that you have a serious problem. If you can’t go 24 hours without drinking, you’re addicted to alcohol. If you can’t go 24 hours without smoking, you’re addicted to nicotine. So if you can’t go 24 hours without saying unkind words about others, then you’ve lost control over your tongue.”

We all know what it feels like to receive discouraging, critical words. It sucks the life out of us. Totally enervates us. It wounds us.  

To hold back critical words or reject gossip, or even to show restraint on social media is important but doesn’t go far enough to satisfy this proverb. This proverbs also encourages us to speak life. We wake up each day wielding such extraordinary power to impact lives with our words.

Sometimes people say things to us that are so encouraging that they carry us through the rest of the day. Sometimes people say things to us that are so encouraging that they carry us through the rest of the week. Sometimes people say things to us that are so encouraging that they carry us through the rest of month. Sometimes people say things to us that are so encouraging that they carry us through the rest of our lives.

I learned something new about Judaism last week that fascinated me. They actually have denominations or units of time beyond hours and minutes. They break down time in some interesting ways. They actually have a designation of time for 3 1/3 seconds. It is called a chelek.

I asked Rabbi Cohen to explain this to me. He said, “It only takes 3 ⅓ seconds to change a life by speaking words of life.” That’s power!! Let’s speak life!!

Click here to purchase Rabbi Daniel Cohen’s book, What Will They Say About You When You Are Gone?