One good deed leads to another good deed, while one sin leads to another sin. (Mishnah Avot, 4:2)
The above rabbinic maxim has often been on my mind of late. It captures the idea that one good thing commonly leads to another good thing, while the opposite is also true – a destructive action frequently sets off a series of disturbing events. This is true about our actions. For example, the telling of a single lie often begins an extended process of telling multiple lies. Conversely, a person who gets involved with charitable work will discover how good that work feels, and become more and more involved. ‘A mitzvah leads to another mitzvah, a sin leads to another sin.’
The same is true of the language we use. Destructive, hateful, and hurtful language leads to more and more destructive language, and potentially to destructive and harmful action. It is no coincidence that as the midterm elections loom, and the political rhetoric grows more and more heated, a series of pipe bombs have been discovered in the mail boxes of well known figures on the left. As I write this it is not yet clear whether the bombs were functional or not, but the point remains the same – hateful and hostile talk will lead to destructive action. Sin causes sin. With the President’s constant use of divisive and hateful language, both in the tweets that he sends so frequently and the stump speech he is currently using on the campaign trail, is it any wonder that someone decided to translate his words into actions? How can we be surprised? Once you cross the line with words you don’t have to go much further to get to that place of violent action. After all, you’ve already crossed the line.
Jonathan Merritt, an occasional writer for the Atlantic, recently published an op ed in the NY Times about the gradual diminishment of what he called ‘God talk’ in our culture today. If you track the column down and read it you’ll find that he is mostly writing about his God, the Christian God, but his point is well taken. Our language has become coarse, our discourse uncivil, and our ability to voice disagreement respectfully almost non-existent. Words like grace, kindness, sacrifice, patience, modesty, sacred, and holy are all words that often come up in faith oriented conversations. We need those words today as much as, if not more, than ever.
Judaism has long believed that what you say can make an impact on what you think and feel. The recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish is a prime example. This prayer, a litany of praises of God, is recited by those who have suffered the loss of a loved one. An odd choice, when you actually stop to think about it. Or is it? Perhaps the idea is that the constant praising of God through the recitation of the prayer will over time enable a person to return to a place of faith, and to reclaim a sense of God’s greatness and presence.
I would argue it is the same for the language we use every day. Lets talk more about modesty and kindness, about grace and justice, about sacrifice and patience, about how we experience the sacred in our lives. The old saying is a rising tide lifts all boats. One good deed leads to another. We can say the same about sacred words.