"Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me". This popular aphorism reflects the notion that it is physical harm to others that is most dangerous. As we all know this is a simplistic and ultimately dangerous notion. Emotional and psychological harm can be and usually does have deeper and longer lasting impact. The severe Torah prohibitions on gossip and slander reflect this reality. Inflicting non-physical hurt on others may even have monetary consequences. Included in the assessment of monetary damages for assaulting another is an amount for boshet, for the embarrassment caused to the individual.
When our Sages equated embarrassing another in public to murder they understood that emotional pain even has physical manifestations. One who is embarrassed will first turn red as they bleed internally, which is more dangerous than external bleeding. They next turn white reflecting the loss of life for the victim. It is little wonder that many rabbinic authorities take the equation of embarrassment to murder literally, ruling that one must, halacha lemasheh, in actual practice, forfeit one's life rather than publicly embarrass another.
That inappropriate words are even more dangerous than physical harm is alluded too in the structure of parshat mishpatim . "And he that smites his father or mother shall surely be put to death. And he that steals a man and sells him if he be found in his hand he shall surely be put to death. And he that curses his father or mother shall surely be put to death" (21:15-17). Our parents are G-d's partners in bringing us into this world. Actually hitting or cursing a parent is in addition to its human fallings an attack on G-d Himself. In fact cursing a parent is punishable only if the name of G-d is invoked, making it a form of blasphemy.
Yet for some strange reason the Torah interjects the punishment relating to kidnapping in between hitting and cursing ones parents. The commentaries explain that the Torah grouped the laws according to the types of punishments that would in theory be meted out. Wounding parents and kidnapping and selling the victim are punishable by chenek (strangulation) whereas cursing a parent warrants the most severe of the four possible death sentences namely that of skilah, stoning. Cursing a parent is so severe that doing so even after their death warrants the death penalty. The Ramban posits that the harsh sentence for cursing is related to the fact that most people while recognizing the inappropriateness of such speech to a parent are somewhat lax in practice and may in a fit of anger say things they will regret later. The Torah wishes to prevent such outbursts; by realizing that by speaking in such a manner we forfeit the right to life, we speak much differently.
Rav Simshon Raphael Hirsch notes that the Torah is highlighting the extra level of care we must have towards our parents. The prohibition of hitting one's parent is preceded by the prohibition of murder in general. "He that smite a man so that he dies shall be put to death". Whereas for all other people a capital offence is only committed if one actually kills another human being, towards a parent the act of hitting is akin to murder.
The Torah then proceeds to teach that robbing someone of their freedom, destroying their human dignity, by kidnapping and selling them is also akin to murder. However "towards a mother and father one does not have to go that far, even expressing the desire for their ruin, by cursing them incurs capital punishment." (Commentary of Rav Hirsch 21:17)
Modern western society has witnessed a breaking down of all forms of authority, be they our attitudes towards parents, teachers, or communal leaders. It appears to me that the Torah is hinting that many of our societal problems begin in the home. Once the authority of the home is broken there is no telling what might happen. However when children properly respect their parents it is unlikely that many of the social ills that beset our society will have much of an impact. A strong home life allows one to face the world around us with pride and confidence as we strive to be a model for others. Shabbat Shalom!