(An abbreviated version of this article appeared on AISH)
My attention was riveted last week (as was much of the American legal community) on an important case that set a precedent: Could a person be convicted of involuntary manslaughter on the basis of words alone? Yes, according to Judge Lawrence Moniz of Bristol County (MA) Juvenile Court who ruled on Commonwealth vs. Michelle Carter.
Michelle Carter was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter of Conrad Roy III. These two teenagers – Michelle (then 17) and Conrad (then 18) – built a virtual relationship largely on texting from 2012 to 2014. The girl started out encouraging the boy to seek treatment for his depression. However in the two weeks before he killed himself on in July 2014, she changed course and encouraged him to commit suicide.
Conrad Roy was a good-hearted but depressed teenager who worked as a tugboat captain. He had graduated from high school with a college scholarship, but worried about the social anxiety he might experience in college. Michelle Carter was a conscientious high school student who liked the television show “Glee.” Her life was controlled by an eating disorder and like her friend, she experienced social anxiety, seeking the approval of friends whom she admired but worried did not like her.
In June 2014, Conrad told his friend Michelle that he was considering suicide, she told him he had a lot to live for, urging him to seek help. He replied: “I WANT TO DIE.”
Soon, Michelle changed her tune. “If this is the only way you think you’re gonna be happy, heaven will welcome you with open arms,” she texted.
They hatched a plan about how he could kill himself with carbon monoxide from car emissions. She egged him on: “You just need to do it.” Without going into details, when he started to back out, she told him on the phone to get back in the cab. He complied. She listened to her friend die, not trying to save him.
The judge’s legal decision cited the fact that she did not try to prevent his death—in fact, she encouraged him. To put it clearly – Michelle Carter was not physically present when Conrad Roy left this world. But, as The New York Times reported about Judge Muniz’s decision, her physical absence was immaterial. She sent him to his death when she ordered him back into the poisoned air of the cab by saying, “Get back in.”
Three words. “Get back in.” The difference between life and death. The difference between a hope-filled future for Michelle Carter versus a life in prison. The difference between Conrad Roy’s enrolling in college versus his family’s standing over his grave, grieving a life that didn’t even begin to bud.
Imagine if her words had been different.
“Conrad, you don’t have to do this.”
“I care about you.”
“Let’s get you help.”
“Your future shines brightly.”
“Your family is so proud of you.”
Legal experts are stunned by this precedent-setting case which concludes that words can help cause suicide.
Yet as a Torah Jew, I’m not surprised. We are taught that words have the power to create and the power to destroy. As King Solomon says in Proverbs 18:21, “Life and death are in the hands of the tongue.” The Gemara in Arachin 15b says that negative speech is even worse than the sword, because it kills many people, even at a great distance.
Speech is the tool of creation. This world was created by the power of words. Worlds are built constantly by words.
A newborn baby is welcomed and enveloped by the family. Words soothe a crying baby. People build relationships through words. Families often have code words or phrases among loved ones, showing love and affection and marking a special unit.
Words are important in all relationships, including the classroom. The teacher who appreciates a lively, quirky child who doesn’t quite fit the mold can put the child far on the path to growing into her potential. By the same token, another teacher could, G-d forbid, destroy the same child.
All questions asked by students should be accepted and answered, even if the teacher needs to tell the student they need to think about it and get back to them. As the adult, you may find the question stupid or that it challenges the basis of Yiddishkeit. Embrace the student, saying, “Let’s learn this together.” You will give the student the correct hashkafic framework which might be more important than the actual answer.
Teachers should never belittle nor humiliate a student of any age or any ability.
These lessons also apply to summer camp. As the 2017 camp season begins, camp directors, head counselors, counselors, Rebbes, and others, take note: You have incredible power over the next 4-8 weeks. Our precious children, whom we entrust to you, can be built from the inside out under your tutelage. They are leaving familiar territory and venturing from their comfort zones into new terrain which can expand their horizons. And your encouraging, supportive words can make all the difference.
Honest, kind words build relationships.
Just a few weeks ago, Harvard University rescinded admission to 10 prospective freshmen for Fall 2017 because of their inflammatory, hate-filled postings on Facebook. Tough stance? Yes. It can be a direct line from such postings to destruction and needless deaths.
My wife tells many stories about her extraordinary teacher, Rabbi Isaiah Wohlgemuth zt”l, who taught at the Maimonides School in Boston. Born and raised in Germany, he was a young man at the time of Kristallnacht, the infamous Night of Broken Glass in November 1938.
Rabbi Wohlgemuth was sent to Dachau where he was discharged after some time. He returned to his hometown before leaving Europe prior to World War II. There was a German soldier stationed in the town who helped the Rabbi during this time. Why? Because the soldier explained that the Rabbi had greeted him every day, wishing him a “Good morning,” when the soldier was growing up. He had never forgotten the kind words, which were accompanied by a genuine smile.
No doubt, Carter’s legal team will concoct some kind of appeal, trying to knock down Moniz’s decision. Perhaps they will even be successful. Unfortunately, though, Carter will always carry with her Roy’s death by asphyxiation – and that she did nothing to stop it.
We should always remember that words have the power to destroy and to create. Let’s evoke this in every encounter with our children and with each other.
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