We were sitting on a bench outside together one Shabbos afternoon, a cluster of neighbors of all ages and stages. Miri, a neighbor from across the street, smiled as she walked past, her two teenage daughters in tow.
Teenage? Not quite; they were both well into their twenties by now, each in need of a shidduch.
Mrs. Krausz was the first to comment. “Poor Miri! She must be so anxious to make a shidduch already!”
“I can’t understand it,” pitched another. “She has such good girls – really the successful sort. They did so well in school and make such a nice impression today. Why is she having such a hard time marrying them off?”
The other women nodded in agreement, clucking sympathetically.
“Well,” Liba said. “There’s a genetic issue in the family. Who wants to touch them?!”
“Genetic issue?” asked Sara Fried.
Just over a year earlier, Miri had been sick. It was no secret. The whole neighborhood knew exactly what illness she had, and many had helped out while she went through it. But baruch Hashem she was fully recovered now.
“Yes,” Liba continued. “Don’t you know that her father passed away young, I think from the same sickness that Miri had? It must be genetic.”
Now, my knowledge of the genetic component to that particular illness is limited. If Liba says it’s hereditary, it probably is. Liba must know what she’s talking about, right?
The conversation soon turned to the new store that had recently opened.
“The Grand Opening sale was really successful!” said Sara. “Almost the whole town was there!”
“I hope the store will do well,” Liba said.
“I can’t imagine it will,” Mrs. Krausz put in. “There are already so many hosiery stores in town. Who needs another one? Besides, the location really isn’t great…”
Another woman seconded the opinion. “Nah, it won’t turn a profit.”
I continued to take part in the mindless chatter. When I stood up to go home, I was the same person I had been when I joined the conversation earlier – only now there were a couple of new “facts” embedded in my brain. I “knew” that Miri was having a hard time with shidduchim because of a genetic problem that plagued her family, and I “knew” that Hosiery Plus would be closing its doors almost as soon as it opened.
A couple of weeks later, I bumped in to an old classmate who happened to be Miri’s sister-in-law. We spoke a bit and then she asked me if I had any ideas for Miri. “I’m desperate to help her. Can you think of any good boys?”
“Um… Isn’t there a genetic history there?” I responded.
“You know – Miri – she was sick last year… and her father passed away from a similar sickness…”
“Totally unrelated,” my former classmate shrugged.
Truth is, I have no idea if this particular illness is typically genetic, or if there is any genetic factor associated with it at all! But the kernel planted in my head had sprouted into a fence of weeds, keeping Miri’s family OUT. And it would be difficult to weed out that overgrowth…
It is frightening how mindless chatter with no gain in it – after all, Liba had no benefit from libeling Miri’s family – can carry such serious repercussions.
One person throws around a couple of words, which she may imagine to be true. Now every listener, and every listener to whom the initial listeners repeat the scoop, “knows” the “facts” beyond a doubt. While such casual comments are often not facts but assumptions, misunderstandings, or the speaker’s personal take on a situation, the damage the words can wreak can be far-reaching, impacting the subject of the conversation forever.
Once negative statements have been made, it is almost impossible to eradicate them. It is easy to accept a negative assumption as fact; it is hard to accept that the presumption was in fact false after it gains a foothold in the listener’s brain.
Do I recognize the power of the words I utter?