A text version of my sermon from Shabbat on 8/3/19.
As Jews we are often referred to as the People of the Book, but we might also just as well be called the People of the Word, or maybe better to say the People of Words. We are great talkers, conversationalists, and communicators. We like to talk so much we are known for talking with our hands. We even have a term in our culture for a person who is a great talker, fondly referring to him or her as a kibitzer. Kibitz is an interesting word – it comes to us from Yiddish, but it is formed from a Hebrew root – ק ב צ – a word which in the Bible means to gather together. Have you ever realized that kibbutz (the settlements in Israel) and kibitz (to talk and joke around) are essentially the same words? Formed from the same root? Why? Because when you gather together you make small talk, and we Jews have perfected that to an art form.
It shouldn’t be surprising. The truth is Judaism has long been invested in the idea that words have power, that they are significant, going all the way back to biblical times. The very first story in the Torah, the Creation narrative, is an illustration of the power of words. The phrase Vayomer Elohim – And God SAID – appears 8 times in the first chapter of Genesis, and each time another aspect of the universe is brought into being. If you are in the habit of reading the weekly Torah portion, you would know that this week’s double portion, Matot-Ma’aseh, begins with a series of laws about vows and oaths, and the power that those words, once spoken, can carry. And what is it we call the 10 Commandments in Hebrew? The עשרת הדברות – what does that mean? Literally translated that would mean something like the ‘ten utterances.’ And of course next week we’ll begin reading the fifth and final book of the Torah, called in English Deuteronomy, but its name in Hebrew is? D’varim! Words!! The very first verse of that book begins with this phrase: אלא הדברים אשר דבר משה – these are the words that Moses spoke.
Of course we don’t necessarily need the Torah to teach us this lesson, because we know from the experiences of our own lives that words have power. The old saying that we memorized as children is ‘sticks and stones can break my bones, but names will never hurt me.’ That phrase is used as a kind of protective shield when people are saying cruel things, as if the hurtful words will in some way bounce off, not able to hit their mark. But of course it doesn’t work, and the truth is it doesn’t even really make sense. A broken bone actually heals – particularly if you are a child – fairly quickly. But when someone says something cruel to you, that crushing feeling and the sting of those words is remembered for years, and sometimes forever.
The opposite is also true. A word of kindness or encouragement or hope can literally change someone’s life for the better. I vividly remember to this day two phone calls I received after I interviewed for rabbinical school. The first call was to tell me that I would not be admitted, that I didn’t have the skills or the knowledge that the committee felt I needed to succeed in the program. About two hours later my phone rang again. It was a rabbi who had been on my interview panel, and the first thing he said to me was ‘I know you weren’t admitted today, but I want you to know I think you can be a terrific rabbi.’ And those eight words – I think you can be a terrific rabbi’ – literally changed my life. I would not be standing here right now had they not be spoken to me. It is that simple. That is the power the words can have.
The thing about it is we have a choice with the words that we use. Maybe as a rabbi I have an extra sensitivity to this idea, because I am often in the position of speaking publicly. When you are seen as being a leader, what you say – or what you tweet – can make a real difference. The right words, carefully chosen and properly spoken, can inspire, soothe, heal, mend fences, and bring hope. The wrong words can have exactly the opposite effect – they can literally break relationships, create mistrust, hurt people, and bring anger and divisiveness into a family, or a synagogue, or a community, or large scale, even into a country.
That is why the recent tweets from the President disparaging Baltimore and its representatives are so disappointing. I am not sure why it is people choose to use hateful and hurtful words. I suppose sometimes it comes from a place of ignorance, and other times from a place of fear. Maybe people are angry, and they speak before they should – the old hit the send button when you should let that email sit in your draft box over night and reconsider it in the morning. But I do know that when we coarsen or cheapen our language, when we curse and yell and rant and rave, what we ultimately end up doing is diminishing ourselves. And I also know that the opposite is true – when we use language to encourage and elevate, to sooth and celebrate, when our words are kind and caring and hopeful, we grow closer with one another and we help to make a better world.
I’ll never forget a number of years ago when I was in line at the bank. A few people in front of me was a woman whom I know from the community. The teller had asked her for ID, which she didn’t have. She lit in to the teller, demeaning him, raising her voice, making sure the teller knew how important and powerful she was, and how unimportant and powerless the teller was.
To his credit the teller wouldn’t budge, and finally the woman turned around to leave in great anger. Suddenly she saw me standing there and stopped dead in her tracks. She was horrified, embarrassed, and after pausing for a moment she said ‘Rabbi I am so sorry. I never would have used those words if I knew you were standing there.’ Then she walked out.
I don’t know if that moment changed her behavior, but it changed mine. Since that day, no matter where I am or what I am doing, I strive to imagine that there is someone in line behind me, someone whom I respect, someone whom I would not want to disappoint. Imagining that helps me choose my words more carefully, and consider my actions more thoughtfully. It helps me, to use the words of our siddur from the Friday night service, lay down at night having no regret for what has happened during the day.
One of my favorite lines in the entire prayer book is the sentence that begins the concluding personal paragraph of the amidah – anyone remember what it is? אלוקי נצור לשוני מרע ושפתי מדבר מרמה – My God, keep my tongue from evil, and my lips from speaking deceit –
So it should be for all of us.