I sent the e‑mail—and later regretted it. Oh, I didn’t say anything so terrible, but I said things that I wish I wouldn’t have put in writing. Once words are in print, they feel very permanent. Once you put it out there, it’s out there; you can’t take it back.

As a writer, I was always acutely aware of this problem, even before the digital age. Thousands of people will see the things I write, and not all of them will like what I said. I can’t undo it, modify it or explain it. It’s just there. Permanently.I sent the e‑mail—and later regretted it

But now all of us are writers. And we’re writing in a medium that is even more public than the hard copies of yesteryear. We’re writing into the cloud. Our words are hackable by unseen eyes. They are permanent, impossible to hide, floating around the ether forever. No trash bin permanently deletes them, no rewrite changes their original flare. Once typed, they exist and they echo for eternity. I hope they’re worthy of it.

Lessons for Our Time

Until now, it was hard for us to grasp the concept that “there is an Eye that sees and an Ear that hears, and all of [our] deeds are recorded in a Book.”1 We assumed, for the most part, that this was a metaphor, a way of saying that G‑d watches us, judges us, and will review our behavior every year on Rosh Hashanah. In other words, if we had a nasty fight with our spouse in the privacy of our home, we understood that G‑d would know about it. Presumably, He would also know that it was our spouse’s fault. The process of review, however, was envisioned as some sort of report: “Debbie had an argument with Max. They each said rather nasty things, but Max was the one who attacked Debbie out of the blue. She was acting in self-defense.” G‑d would then judge Debbie’s behavior, taking into account all of the circumstances.

However, it is much easier now to appreciate that Debbie was actually creating the evidence herself. The words she spoke and the way she spoke them are etched into the universe, preserved for G‑d to examine. Indeed, every word we say is just like the e‑mail we write—it’s out there and it’s retrievable. It doesn’t cease to exist when we stop speaking it. On the contrary, it exists forever.

Loophole in the Sky

Well, not necessarily forever. It depends on us, actually. G‑d has provided us with a miraculous “out”—an opportunity to erase our words from the fabric of the universe. We can do teshuvah, which literally means “return.” We can “return to sender”—we can swallow our own words and thus remove them from the world. They will disintegrate, disappear and morph into something healthy (the way that a digested apple becomes nutrients for the body). The process defies the regular laws of the universe, and is a tremendous gift that G‑d has given us. However, it doesn’t happen on its own. We have work to do.

First, we must own up to the fact that we spoke in an unsuitable way. We can’t make excuses for ourselves. We need to say out loud to G‑d, “My words are unbecoming, and I don’t want them resonating in my name forever. I want to take them back.” And we need to ask forgiveness from the person we insulted with our words. That’s the easy part. The second part is also easy: we must promise not to speak such words in the future. The third part is not very easy: in the future, when we are provoked in the exact same way, we must not say anything of the kind again. If we do all three steps out of love for G‑d and the desire to be close to Him, then our previous unflattering speech will be turned into a blessing for us—the nutrients will be squeezed out and will nourish our soul.We can’t make excuses for ourselves

And, just in case we thought we might outsmart G‑d, we should know that the magic loophole is canceled altogether if we plan to use it—we can’t just say something mean with the intention to do teshuvah later on!

Implications for Speaking Beings

Since we know that e‑mail is a serious communication commitment, we often pause and reflect before pushing the “send” button. If we’re angry when writing an e‑mail, it is advised that we wait until 24 hours have passed or until we are calm before we send it, which can save us much embarrassment and grief.

We need to follow a similar protocol for spoken words. If someone’s words or actions irritate us, we should not reply immediately. Instead, we should take some time to think about what we want to communicate, and then reply later when our thoughts are more organized (and we are calm).

If we regret our previous negative speech, promise to refrain from such speech in the future, and then start practicing our new habit today, G‑d will erase our “history” and we will be closer to Him than we were before.