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1.9     Shimon ben Shetah taught:

Cross-examine the witnesses thoroughly, but be careful in your choice of words lest something you say lead them to testify falsely.

Honestly, I liked the ones about scholars better. The realm of law is simply a touch too far out of my realm of reasoning to really resonate well with me. But every step worth taking is, well, a step worth taking, so I might as well take this one, too.

When writing my commentary last week, in responding to judging litigants both as guilty, one thought that had gone through my mind was the pros and cons of choices we have to make every day. If I never have to cross-examine witnesses, I’ll never gain anything of worth from this teaching; so if I’m going to honestly learn from it, I’ve got to relate it to something I do daily. And I judge choices daily. And most often, I judge my choices harshly.

One choice I’m in the midst of making right now is which one-credit course to take in the fall to remain full-time (my other required courses only amount to eleven credits, so I truly do need to take one more). My pros and cons are an odd assortment of what interests me most and what fits my schedule best. Ultimately, I could deliberate this for weeks on end (and in a small way I already have), but what it all will come down to is an odd mixture of my own feelings and a good long hard look at my obligations and responsibilities outside of my classes, which will ultimately decide which class I can take in the end. So cross-examining won’t help me much here.

But there’s another place where it will help me, quite a lot actually: Text messaging. And instant messaging. And virtual messaging in general. Can you, off the top of your head, right now, count how many times someone has misunderstood what you’ve written? Maybe you weren’t as clear as you’d thought you were, or maybe your sarcasm just sounded scathing?

I know I can’t.

I know I’ve even lost entire friendships to virtual misunderstandings.

It happens to all of us at some point, but maybe with a little learning from this week’s lesson, we can avoid them a little more. (Cue references to small talking and taming partners. Or perhaps not?) Let’s look at it again: “Be careful in your choice of words lest something you say lead them to testify falsely.”

It’s beautiful. It’s poetic. It’s true. The power of words is the strongest power we hold, no matter what language we speak, or even if we speak at all. If I yell at you in anger that I love you, are you going to feel loved? If I softly whisper to you that you’re the spawn of Satan and I despise you, are you going to feel like I mean it? Just look at all those drug commercials on TV, how softly they say their side effects include possible death. And yet we ask our doctors about them anyways!

So it’s not just what we choose to say, but also how we say it. Tone of voice is entirely absent in written communications, so it really does come down to what we say. And there’s really no way to know what we might say wrong in any given situation to make too many generalizations. I know I can say some pretty crude things to a few select friends, but we know each other so well, such remarks are only humorous at best; but those same remarks to some others, and well, I could probably put a couple jobs at risk. Context over content really is the catchphrase of the day.

How, then, can I adapt this lesson to everyday use? Even better, how can I restate it such that each of you—my readers—can gain something from it, too? Simply to simmer it down to a warning to think twice before hitting the send key would be a bit too weak, methinks, but at the same time, I’m struggling to find any other way to say it: Think about it, or regret it later.

The part about leading people to testify falsely also warrants some special mention, since it can also apply not only to misrepresenting ourselves to others, but also to making others misrepresent themselves, too. I recall once when I was misinformed, and when I passed that along, well, I felt quite like a fool. It’s not fun. It’s rather embarrassing. So we really do have to be careful about where we get our information from, and in this age of information, there’s a lot of places to pick and choose from. It’s not easy, to know if something’s reliable or not, but we always have to be on the lookout in case it isn’t. And if we aren’t sure about something, forget pride for the moment and simply say you don’t know. After all, would you rather be remembered for not knowing something, or for thinking you know what you really don’t?

I know, for me, I’d choose the first any day.

So the lesson to be gained: Even if you’re not the jury cross-examining witnesses (even though we can apply the same scrutiny to the pros and cons of the choices we make every day), be careful with what you say, especially when all you have are words to say it with. After all, if all I had were words, my blog would have a lot fewer wonders with it, wouldn’t it?

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