Receive weekly insights from the Chief Rabbi
Office of the Chief Rabbi

Thought for the Day: ‘The Power of Words’

Share this article:

Ahead of Holocaust Memorial Day, the Chief Rabbi shares his thoughts on the immeasurable power of words, and how they can be used both to create, and to destroy.

Listen to the Audio here.

You can read the full transcript below.


There is an old Jewish folk story about a man who approached his Rabbi. “I’m troubled” he said, “Because I’ve maligned and slandered others. How can I undo the harm that I have caused?” The Rabbi replied, “Take a box and fill it with feathers. On a windy day, climb to the top of a hill and empty the box of its contents. Wait for half an hour, and then collect all the feathers and return them to the box.” “But, that would be impossible, I’d never find them all”, exclaimed the man. “Indeed, that’s my answer”, said the Rabbi, “You can never reclaim your slander, nor the damage that it has caused.”

Holocaust Memorial Day, which falls tomorrow, reminds us of a time when a calculated strategy of indoctrination swayed the minds of the masses, persuading many seemingly sophisticated people to rationalise the brutal murder of millions of innocent women, men and children. Tragically, those poisonous feathers of hate continue to influence minds to this day.

Fittingly, the theme for Holocaust Memorial Day is ‘The Power of Words’. Gone are the days of “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never harm me.”

The Book of Genesis recalls how the Almighty formed the world at the dawn of Creation by making a series of statements: “Let there be light”; “Let the Earth bring forth living creatures”; “Let us create people in our image and in our likeness.” What was the purpose of these statements? God spoke the universe into existence to teach us the immeasurable power of words. Just as they were used to create our world, so they can be used to destroy it. This colossal crime against humanity was made possible because of what Joseph Goebbels called “the power of words to clothe and disguise.”

The Nazis began by normalising hate speech, and on that foundation the Holocaust was constructed. It shames us that it was precisely through the same process that Genocides in Bosnia, Cambodia, Darfur and Rwanda have since been made possible.

And yet, by harnessing the positive power of words we can build bridges of hope and peace. By highlighting all that which we have in common, and not what divides us, we can banish xenophobia and hatred from our world. The era of social media has given the power of words to every person who wishes to wield it. Holocaust Memorial Day challenges us to ensure that we use that power to create, and not to destroy.