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  • Writer's pictureLeann Shamash

The Teacher and the Girl

Updated: May 18, 2022

The lion's share of Parshat Behar is about Shmita, the sabbatical year. It speaks about total rest for the land every seven years, but also about forgiving debts and a system of justice.

Tucked into this Parshat Behar is a pasuk that I would have skipped over, but listening to a podcast, I learned that the meaning of this pasuk relates directly to how we speak to one another and the powerful damage that words can do.

וְלֹ֤א תוֹנוּ֙ אִ֣ישׁ אֶת־עֲמִית֔וֹ וְיָרֵ֖אתָ מֵֽאֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ כִּ֛י אֲנִ֥י יְהֹוָ֖ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃ Do not wrong one another, but

fear your God; for I יהוה am your God.

Monetary damage to someone can be repaired, but the harm that words can do cannot be easily repaired. Words are uncontrolled weapons. Once they are in the public space they no longer belong to us, but are absorbed by others.

Perhaps this short story can illustrate this concept. It is just one story among the many words that pierce individuals every day.

The Teacher and the Girl

Once, long ago, so many years that is hard hard to count, a girl, an ordinary girl stood in the cold office. A person sat behind a desk. His job was to teach; her job was to learn. Between them on the table there were miles of distance as though they sat on opposite ends of a large field. He had information and she had a lack of understanding.

The girl, the student, sat up straight as words poured out of the man’s mouth. Equations with numbers and arrows pointing in different directions. So many jumbled words. The girl listened but did not understand. Words cascaded as the tall man gesticulated; his hands opened wide to make points and still the ordinary girl did not understand. The girl answered questions wrong and then wrong again. The more the girl did not understand, the taller and louder the man grew. He sputtered and repeated himself. As the man grew taller, the girl sank lower and lower in her seat. She wished that she could disappear.

Time passed and then the man rose up to his full height, gestured in the air with his face reddened and angry. From his mouth came the words , “You are so stupid. Leave my office for you cannot learn.”

The words rose into the air from his mouth like small spears. Perhaps those words wished, if they could have, that they could return to the man’s open mouth, but alas, it was too late and the words hit the girl.

“You are so stupid.”

First they nicked her, and quickly they found a way into her. They pierced her skin through her ears, through her eyes, her pores and they embedded themselves, like sharp leeches in a thousand spots. They found a special spot and lodged into her memory.

“You are so stupid.”

Those words lay on her chest, in her mind. They weighed down her shoulders, they stopped the words from coming out her mouth. Her skin turned red as the blood ran to her cheeks. She tried to straighten herself to leave that office and it took all of her strength to get up from her seat and leave. She did not know where to put her eyes and what to do with her hands and her legs trembled as she slunk from the office. Words did not come out, but tears did.

And the girl was silent for then and for long time after that. The words that fell onto her and into her and planted roots there that ran deep. And for years those words became real in the mind of the girl. How stupid she was. For years those words silenced her, cheated her and mocked her.

“You are so stupid.”

Four words, so much damage.

Many years went by and the weight of those words slowly, so slowly, faded. With the years, the girl's voice returned and she began to believe in herself once again.

And the girl, now no longer a young girl, but still a girl at heart, wondered if the tall man, the teacher in the office, understood how powerful his words were when they escaped his mouth. She wondered if he, with his red face and his head full of numbers and equations, even knew what damage he had done with those four short words.


Words can be like leeches, like spears, but they can also be a soothing balm, parachutes that lift us high. May we all choose them carefully.

וְלֹ֤א תוֹנוּ֙ אִ֣ישׁ אֶת־עֲמִית֔וֹ וְיָרֵ֖אתָ מֵֽאֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ כִּ֛י אֲנִ֥י יְהֹוָ֖ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃ Do not wrong one another,

fear your God; for I יהוה am your God.

Leviticus 25:17 (Translation from Sefaria)


For more on the power of speech to hurt and the concept of shame.

Noah Katz' podcast on Parshat Hashavua L'Chayim, L'Chayim

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