Yes, I knew that ona'at devarim is a very bad thing.
But on pages 4-5, Rav Miller gives the example of 2 different storekeepers:
One is always a paragon of politeness – but he'll cheat you out of a bit, like by putting his thumb on the scale when he's weighing your bananas. You need to watch him like a hawk.
The other is honest and would never take something that wasn't his, even by mistake – not a penny and not a million dollars. But he speaks with a sharp tongue and answers innocent inquiries with retorts like: "“Look right in front of you on the shelf! Can’t you see?!”
Which one is worse?
The truth is, they're both pretty bad, each in his own way.
But Rav Miller quotes the Gemara:
Gadol ona’as devarim mei’ona’as mammon – The sin of hurtful words is worse than the sin of cheating a man out of his money.
Because I am a really horrible person who verbally abuses others without a second thought, and couldn't believe my behavior was so wrong?
I was shocked because I've met enough people who feel that as long as they are honest and careful with other mitzvot, including all sorts of favors for others, they can behave however they want.
They might be generous with tzedakah (even when they don't have much to give themselves), and do lots of chessed, including visiting the sick & hosting guests, but they will say whatever they feel they need to say and whatever they've decided you need to hear, and if that hurts your feelings, well...too bad! You need to grow up! You need to hear the truth! That's just how they are – straightforward, say-it-like-it-is, "natural and being myself!", "speak my mind!"
Or this gem: "I wouldn't criticize you if I didn't care about you." ARRGHHH!
To make things even more confusing, when you run into people like this, other people can jump to their defense, either pointing out the good things they do or the difficult life they've had, as if that all justifies the bad behavior.
But Rav Millers says NO!
Our good deeds do not outweigh our hurtful words.
Now, I just want to say that I think we've all had situations in which we said something we later regretted.
Or maybe we told someone whatever we thought was the truth about them – and we honestly thought that was a good idea at the time. (And yes, sometimes – very rarely – it is a good idea.)
Also, there are people going through a hard time who are writhing in emotional pain and honestly aren't aware of how they're behaving. (I'm talking about people who DO care about their middot, but are temporarily distracted by their emotional pain.)
Sympathy & understanding of others is good.
But for ourselves, we need to know that speaking hurtfully to others is something to be avoided at all costs.
Rav Miller notes that Rebbi Shimon Bar Yochai emphasized that the initial part of Parshat Behar forbids us to steal or cheat – period.
But the following verse Vayikra 25:17 forbids you to hurt your fellow Jew with words is followed by "you shall fear your God."
(Rashi includes this to mean both verbal hurt & giving bad advice. Avoid both!)
Of course a huge chunk of not stealing or cheating has to do with fearing God – even if you're not caught by a person, Hashem still sees you!
But the Torah itself emphasizes that we must fear Hashem even more with regard to hurting others' feelings.
As Rav Miller notes (page 6):
A cheater also has to be afraid, but for the man who hurts feelings, the Torah says: “Be afraid of the repercussions!”
If chalilah you say something that hurts someone else, you have to be especially afraid of Hashem! If you say an insulting word to somebody, you already have to be apprehensive, “What might be?!”
No question about it. Hakodosh Boruch Hu takes action if you hurt people's feelings.
Rav Miller also exhorts us to realize that words can actually HURT; the nerves, heart, and mind can all experience pain just from words.
He extracts this from Mishlei/Proverbs 12:18: "Yesh boteh k'madkarot charev – Sometimes words come out of your mouth that are like the piercings of a sword."
Rav Miller adds a quote from Rav Shmuel bar Nachmeini:
Zeh nitan l’hashavon v’zeh lo - Money you could always pay back, but hurt feelings you can’t pay back.
Yes, a lot we do forget. But we can all remember something that someone said to us that was like a knife in the heart or a boot in the gut.
We remember where we were, who it was, and exactly what they said – even if it was decades ago.
Interestingly, even if you forgive them wholeheartedly, you can still remember the incident.
Rav Miller describes his own experience with this on page 7.
The Really Stupid Geniuses
It helps a lot to receive forgiveness from your spouse, but it's better to do everything you can to avoid saying hurtful things at all.
Rav Miller praises husbands who ask mechilah ("At least he should have the seichel to do that! Some don't even has the seichel to say that" – page 8.)
It might seem obvious to ask forgiveness from one's wife, but I personally know of one case in which the husband was dying and his wife very gently, tactfully, and lovingly asked him if he wanted her to help him with asking forgiveness of anyone or making a cheshbon hanefesh.
And he didn't!
I was floored, especially considering how disdainfully he'd treated her throughout their entire marriage.
I didn't say a word to her when she told me this because she took it as a kind of temimut on his part, like he wanted to just let Hashem decide things and go with whatever Hashem wanted, and she found great comfort in this.
And I didn't want to destroy her comfort. So I didn't give any indication of my true feelings.
But boy, did that scare me!
Believe me, he had TONS of stuff for which to ask mechilah from his wife.
And this guy, who didn't grow up so frum, but came to it later in life and ended up learning in kollel all day and absolutely loved learning a classic mussar book – this is it? This is the end result?
There are people who, if they weren't frum, would be philosophy majors or something. They have the intellectual capability to learn Gemara or Mussar or Chassidus, but it always stays firmly in their head.
It never flows down to their heart.
And these people scare me more than any Minchat Yehudah story about demons or malachim mashchitim because Hashem gave these learned guys all the tools necessary to improve themselves and it's as if they just spit on it all and say, "Doesn't apply to me! No thanks!"
And what excuse will they have in Shamayim? They made an intense study of Gemara, Shulchan Aruch, Mesillat Yesharim, Chovot Halevavot, Orchot Tzaddikim, Gates of Teshuvah, and...?
They treat their nearest and dearest badly, they're in a bad mood or easily angered much of the time...and then they don't ask forgiveness. Ever.
What are they going to say? "Oh, I didn't know, Hashem! I'm a tinok shenishba! Or, um...something?"
It really, really frightens me a lot.
I heard of someone else who was always verbally abusive to his family and then Hashem struck him with a degenerative disease of his entire speech apparatus.
His jaw, tongue, and everything just started disintegrating. And the disease was potentially fatal too.
Yet instead of saying, "Gosh, Hashem is removing my entire speech apparatus – perhaps that means something?", he simply used what was left of his voice box and grunted angrily to express his displeasure.
It was also tragic because if the disease indeed came about because of his nasty tongue, he could reverse the disease simply by doing teshuvah and take upon himself speaking nicely forevermore.
But when he couldn't be verbally abusive with his tongue, he switched to using his throat.
What an absolute knucklehead.
This is one reason why in Pirke Avot, we learn that the most important thing is a good heart.
Without it, you can learn all the beautiful Torah you want and still be a jerk – in fact, a HOPELESS jerk, which is even worse than a non-learned jerk.
After all, if you won't listen to Rav Moshe Chaim Luzatto, or the rabbanim in Pirke Avot, or to – hey! – GOD, then who will you listen to?
There aren't so many of these people (most people do work on themselves), but when you meet them, it's quite shocking because they are so smart & learned, but because they lack a good heart, they end up being the stupidest people you'll ever encounter.
Because if a guy like that won't even ask mechilah, then where are his brains?
A Devil Always Loses in the End
In fact, it seems that Rav Miller helpfully told the man that to his face.
But what did it help?
He shouldn't have been acting that way in the first place.
And when the man's suffering wife was dying, he asked her for mechilah.
And she said, "I won't forgive you."
And then she died and the "frum devil" was left without her mechilah.
"He was finished!" Rav Miller declared.
Too bad for him. He should've been good when he had the chance.
Important Advice for Parents
Parents are forbidden from ona'at devarim with their children too.
Rav Miller has all sorts of advice about that, plus the idea that once you give a child something, it's his and you can't give it to another child.
Holding Your Tongue Saves Lives
Unless we are both naturally sensitive & also aware of all the halachot and careful to practice everything we learn, most of us could improve in this area.
Every little bit helps.
As Rav Miller says (page 14):
And therefore, it becomes necessary for people to think, “What did I say during the day? Maybe I should train my tongue to be restrained. Maybe I am too careless with my feelings.”
Husbands and wives, boys and girls, old sages and business people, everyone must spend some time thinking about how they speak.
Here's How You Use Your Tongue for the Good
People need a kind word.
Rav Levi Yitzchak Bender also emphasized this strongly.
People need chizuk, encouragement, validation, kindness...
Just like you can remember the piercing words said to you, you probably can also remember the words the lifted you up, the words that helped you look at yourself in a whole new way, the words that warmed you up from inside, the words you found healing.
Rav Miller has a personal story about that too on page 16.
Rav Miller also recalls the time he told a regular American police officer that people appreciate what he's doing.
And Rav Miller even wrote letters of appreciation to President Truman and received thank-you notes in return from the President's assistant.
It's great to offer a word of encouragement to every person.
But the most important place to use a healing tongue is at home with your closest family members.
Rav Miller states that for a married couple:
Their job in this world is to give each other encouragement.
If you encourage your spouse, you are doing your job in This World.
Rav Miller compares it to a treasury of gold that costs you nothing to share.
He emphasizes that Hashem judges us most by our encounters with others.
How did we treat them?
What did we say to them?
On page 19, Rav Miller offers specific advice for husbands and on page 20, specific advice for wives.
(Then, on the last page, Rav Miller explains how eating 3 meals on Shabbat can save you from suffering chevlei Mashiach.)
The main thing is to get started & do whatever we can to get moving in the right direction.