Day 1 | Day 2
First Day Rosh Hashanah: The Power of Words
by Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
Recently I was surfing through the rabbinic chat line, Ravnet, and there appeared a collection of what are called Shul Bloopers, those little mistakes that make a big difference. One rabbi in Westchester wrote of a person who would lead the congregation in the prayer that we say when we return the Torah to the ark, when we conclude, "hadesh yamenu ke-kedem," "Renew our days as of old," this person would sing, "kadesh yamenu kekedem," or, "Make Kiddush all our days with Kedem wine."
A rabbi from Maryland told of the Bar Mitzvah student who began his blessings with, "Baruch ata annoy," or, Blessed are you, but don't bother us," A rabbi in California wrote of a Bar Mitzvah who, when blessing his tallit, said, "Asher Kidshanu bemtizvotav vitzivanu lehadlik ner shel tzitzit," praising God "who has commanded us to kindle the flame of the tzitzit." A sure flag burner in the making there. And then my favorite, from a rabbi in Massachusetts, who had a young student say the blessing over cookies, which usually concludes, borei minei mezonot, only the child said, "Borei pri zonot," thanking God for the fruits of the world's oldest profession.
I bring up these bloopers to make three important points. First: everyone makes mistakes. And much of the time we don't even realize what we've done. But because everyone makes mistakes, we should not be self conscious about it. That's why we've done a lot this past year to reduce that stigma associated with perceived inadequacy in that strange foreign language called Judaism. Our "Davening for Dummies" series has been quite successful and we are continuing it. If you're worried about a lack of expertise, you can't do worse than Borei pri zonot and it's already been done. Nothing can phase us here. If ever you feel totally inadequate, look up here and realize that whatever you feel, I have felt too. If you forgot to put on a kippah and the service is three quarters over, look up here: been there; done that. Message number one: relax and keep trying; Judaism is too precious to give up on simply because it is complicated.
Message number two. Rabbis gossip. Just as congregants often tell tales of rabbis, rabbis love to talk about their congregants. Except me. I've never let my colleagues know about the bloopers that occur here, even the time where the Bat Mitzvah chanting the half kaddish replaced the word tushbechata withtushy bechata. I actually thought it to be a nice poetic commentary about God's more earthy qualities. So rabbis talk about congregants. We talk about other rabbis too. We spread rumors, we spew anger; in short we're human. But while we can and must forgive ourselves for our bloopers, we can't and mustn't accept a propensity to gossip.
And finally message three: the power of words. As we have seen, a single letter can reverse the entire meaning of a prayer. And while these bloopers are primarily laughing matters, the power of words is dead serious.
I would like us all to dedicate these next several days to exploring closely the meaning of these three messages for our lives and our community: the power of words, the danger of gossip and the need to not give up something very Jewish and very right simply because it is difficult.
How often do we think about the words we speak? Judaism understands words to be bearers of holiness. There is no custom of kissing simple ritual objects like candlesticks and kiddush cups. But we kiss a mezuzah because it contains a word, the name of God. Next week we'll recite the Kol Nidre prayer because we understand that the promises we make, to ourselves and God are at the heart of who we are. Words have extraordinary power. Recite fourteen of them over two burning candles on a Friday evening and you have, magically, brought Shabbat peace into your home. Recite only nine while giving or accepting an object of minimal value, usually a plain gold band, and you have sanctified a relationship for eternity.
Words can increase holiness, and words can diminish it: The National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse has compiled a list of disparaging comments made by angry parents to children, including: "You're pathetic." "You can't do anything right." "You disgust me." "Just shut up." "Hey, stupid. Don't you know how to listen?" "You're more trouble than you're worth." "I wish you were never born." Does anyone here think that a child raise with these words believes that sticks and stones can break our bones but words can never hurt us?
An old Jewish teaching compares the tongue to an arrow. "Why not another weapon, a sword for example?" one rabbi asks. "Because," he is told, "if a person unsheathes his sword to kill his friend and his friend begs for mercy, he can always put the sword aside; but the arrow, once it is shot, cannot be returned, no matter how much the person wants to."
Words. The power of words. A year ago, Zion Square in Jerusalem was filled with protesters crying, "Death to the traitor," and some fringe rabbis gave sanction to those calls through their warped interpretation of Jewish law. A few weeks later, Prime Minister Rabin lay dead in Tel Aviv. It all began with words.
We were beyond consolation; except for the heartfelt words of his granddaughter, and two masterfully chosen words of an American President, "Shalom Haver."
Words. Filled with violence, like the gangsta rap lyrics that glorify killing policemen and abusing women. Words, words that destroy people bloodlessly. Raymond Donovan, President Reagan's first secretary of labor, was the victim of a long campaign of rumors and innuendo, which finally culminated in a criminal prosecution. After running up legal bills in excess of a million dollars, he was acquitted of all charges. When he emerged from the courtroom he posed the bitter question, "Where do I get my reputation back?" One could imagine the security employee accused of the Olympic Park bombing asking the same thing.
In a small Eastern European town a man went through the community slandering the rabbi. One day, feeling suddenly remorseful, he begged the rabbi for forgiveness and offered to undergo any penance to make amends. The rabbi told him to take a feather pillow from his home, cut it open, scatter its feathers in the wind, then return to see him. The man did as he was told, then returned to the rabbi and asked, "Am I now forgiven?" "Almost," came the response. "You just have to do one more thing. Go and gather all the feathers."
"But that's impossible," he replied. "The wind has already scattered them."
"Precisely," the rabbi answered. "And although you truly wish to correct the evil you have done, it is as impossible to repair the damage done by your words as it is to recover those feathers.
This message is not new to us. We hear it every year at this time. Many of the Al Het sins recited on Yom Kippur are about gossip, slander, anger, talebearing and disrespect. Jews have about as many words for bad language as Eskimos do for snow. And it's not because we do it more than anyone else, but it might be because we recognize the dangers more than most. Because we have seen those dangers first-hand.
We Jews have suffered from the big lies and small ones. We have seen Zionism equated with racism in United Nations and we have seen the word Jew as a verb, equated with cheater in the dictionary. We have seen gossip destroy Alfred Dreyfus 100 years ago and that same year, whose centennial we now mark, we have seen how two words could galvanize us and restore hope to our people: the words, "Jewish State." The author: Theodor Herzl.
Yes, you've heard this before and will again, but I contend that we need to understand the power of words now more than ever, and not just because of the hatred that led Yigal Amir to commit his infamous deed. We have, in this community, this country and in this world, reached a crisis in civility that we have never before seen. And the dangers for America, for the Jewish people and for humankind, cannot be overstated.
It's getting mean out there. We see it in the talk shows, we hear it on the radio, we witness it at athletic events, where a fan's right to cheer and boo has now become the right to throw ice pellets at opposing players at a football game, live rats at a hockey game and at a boxing match simply to jump into the ring and start punching.
The motto in newspapers has become, slander now, retract later. Even the gossip columnists think it has gone too far. Liz Smith noted recently that she has been criticized by higher-ups for not attacking people enough. The USA Today's Jeannie Williams concurred, saying that standards of civility among columnists have gone down.
Which brings us to Dick Morris. This is not to condone anything Morris is alleged to have done. Adultery is immoral; and it was immoral when the alleged adulterer was Gary Hart, when it was John F Kennedy, when it was Franklin Roosevelt. But if we ask the question, would the world have been better off had Roosevelt and Kennedy been wiped off the political map as Hart was, and as Clinton almost was, because of this darkest form of gossip, then the answer must be that a person's private life must be allowed to remain private as long as it does not effect job performance. If public figures are to have no private life, than anyone with an ounce of conscience will refuse to run for office; we all have skeletons in our closets, at one time or another, we all have inhaled, so to speak. So who will run for office, if all is fair game? Exactly the kind of brazen, boorish person we would not want to run this country.
What was most alarming about the Morris case was how the allegedly responsible news media justified taking their scoops second hand from a supermarket tabloid. ( I can just imagine the network execs in a smoke-filled room at the Democratic convention, popping the cork and reciting the blessing, "borei p'ri zonot.") It was legitimate news, they said, because the President had opened his personal life up to public view throughout the convention, talking about his brother's drug problem among other matters. Well, that makes no sense at all. It's like saying that if a person decides to give blood he deserves to bleed to death. Just because a candidate wants to select certain elements of his human, private side to reveal to the public, is that an invitation to invade the privacy of his associates? Just because the President invited us into his living room, did that give us license to snoop around his campaign director's bedroom? What was the news here? If humiliation is now legitimate front-page news, we have indeed lost our way.
It's not just journalists. How many fine trial attorneys discover that their reputations can only be enhanced not just by discrediting the opposition, but by destroying them. And it isn't just in law and journalism where malicious gossip is put to use for profit, it's found all over the business world, at the water fountain and in the board room; it's found in medicine and science, it was virtually invented in academia and it certainly has its place in Jewish community life, and it's even on Ravnet. And if you don't believe it has gotten worse out there, calculate if you can exactly how many reputations were utterly decimated by the O.J. Simpson trial. Two people were murdered, we know that, but the damage only began there, for no one who was involved in that judiciary circus emerged unscathed. Historians will have to look no further than that trial when determining when American society hit rock bottom.
And then there are politicians. Joseph Telushkin, in promoting his new book, "Words That Hurt - Words That Heal," which I've just had the pleasure of reading and reviewing, tried to marshall support for a national "Speak No Evil Day." A great, if somewhat idealistic concept, a sort of "National Smoke Out" for the tongue, one day when we would all try just a little bit harder to refrain from excessive anger, unfair criticism, public and private humiliation, bigoted comments, cruel jokes, rumors and malicious gossip: those things that traumatize us all and destroy so many lives. Sounds like an easy sell, an apple pie issue, right?
Telushkin came upon a day, May 14, as the National Speak No Evil Day. He found two senators to co-sponsor a bi-partisan resolution, our own Senator Lieberman and Senator Connie Mack of Florida; the bill was sent to the Judiciary Committee and there it rested, awaiting the 50 needed signatures to send it on to the Senate floor. The resolution reached the committee 13 months ago. May 14 came and went. The bill died. It never reached the floor of the Senate. It has since been reintroduced, with the target date of May 14, 1997.
Abraham, the hero of our reading today, asked of God, "Are there not 50 righteous people in the city of Sodom, and for their sake will you not save the city." There were not. Are there now not 50 civil Senators to sign this innocuous resolution promoting civilized discourse? Alas, the answer appears to be no. Is it possible that our nation's leaders don't feel themselves capable of resisting character assassination and innuendo even for a single day? I would hope not.
No doubt gossip can be good at times. After all, that is what is the mishaberach prayer, the get well prayer is all about: empathic people talking about one another. Language can be our most life enhancing tool and language can be our most lethal weapon. But at some point in this century, the innocent busybody bantering of Yenta the Matchmaker became the lethal three bullets of Yigal Amir. At the time of the assassination last fall, the Jewish world was awash in proclamations decrying inflammatory speech, but that clamor has long since subsided. Now it has been replaced by more of the same. In Israel, inflammatory language has recently led to death threats against Reform rabbis and a Supreme Court Justice. We're back to business-as-usual, with far less communicating and much more excommunicating going on. This has got to stop. 2,000 years ago, Jerusalem was destroyed because of malicious use of language, the Talmud tells us -- it is happening again.
The world has fallen steeply since Yenta. In America, in Israel and here in our own community, our words destroy lives daily. We are killers and we don't even realize it. On a daily basis we rip open that pillow and allow those feathers to fly, and each feather is an arrow straight to someone's heart. We must become far more sensitive to each utterance, even each raised eyebrow. That's what our tradition demands.
How can we change things? Rabbi Milton Steinberg once said. "When I was younger, I admired clever people. Now that I am older, I admire kind people." We need to do that more. We need to show our greatest admiration not for those who claim to be in the know, but for those who know how to keep that arrow in the bow. What do we gain, after all, by telling gossip? Does it enhance our status? Does it make us part of the in-crowd? Judaism prohibits gossip, which we call "lashon hara," evil language, even when the rumor is true, because we always color the truth with our own anger, our own shadings of the truth. We must turn our back on rumor and assume it is false and politely but firmly, turn our backs on the rumor-spreader as well. We must declare an all out war on verbal terrorism. This must be indeed a second Civil War -- a war to restore civility to our ruptured civilization.
In the Torah, when Miriam spoke one-dimensionally about Moses and his relationship with a foreign woman, she was inflicted with leprosy. Leprosy is the Torah's way of saying that those who abuse the right of social conversation, must be sent out of the community where their tongue can do no more harm. When we hear garbage, we shouldn't have to wait 'til pickup day to take out the trash.
But not self-righteously, because we all do it. We are addicted to gossip. This is perhaps the only mitzvah where the Torah expects everyone to fall short of the mark. It's human nature to be insecure, to want to feel important, in the know. As Joseph Telushkin writes, "The desire to seem important can impel otherwise rational people to act in a pathetically dishonest way." And it's human nature to be angry at times and to channel that anger into twisted facts and distorted tales, anything to help us sustain our anger, because it takes so much energy to hate. But we can change it. I am convinced that we can. We must.
A week from now on Shabbat Shuvah, we'll read the immortal words of the prophet Hosea, "Take words with you and return to the Lord. Instead of bulls, our offering will come from our lips." On these days of repentance, let us inscribe each word we utter into the book of life -- let us aim higher than ever before in how we speak. Let us aim for nothing less than perfection. I actually tried it. For one day, I tried to make my every utterance a vessel of Godliness. Of course I failed, but that's not the point. The point is that it changed me. And it could change you too.
This morning, I propose that we take Telushkin's Speak No Evil Day and we try it, right here. But not for a day: for a week. Starting at the end of services tomorrow until the shofar blast at the end of Yom Kippur. Starting tomorrow. From tomorrow to Yom Kippur, for the duration of the Ten Days, I challenge you to see how far you can go.
Of course no one has to do this. You know me well enough by now to understand that my aim is to challenge, not coerce. If enough of us try, however, our community will never be the same again. And we can do it. We can support each other, because we know that this is one sin that we've all committed, probably within the last ten minutes. We come into this project as a team. We also know that no one can possibly succeed completely. Yet that does not mean we are doomed to failure. I feel that this congregation is ready to set a precious example for others.
The concept of Shmirat ha-lashon, sensitivity in what we say, is as central to Judaism as Shabbat, tzedakkah and Israel. Yet most people don't know this, probably because it is so difficult. We who are committed Jews, and that means all of us because we are here today: how could we abandon a core principle of Judaism simply because it is hard?
So how do we do it? Today I've presented the problem; tomorrow, you'll hear the solution. Tomorrow, I'll prepare you, as best I can, for a ten-day journey the likes of which this community has never experienced. I'll also tell you what happened to me when I tried it for a day. In the meantime, there are copies of The Ten Days project guide at your seats and out in the lobby to take home with you today. Take a look at it tonight, and tomorrow we'll go into basic training. While it already feels good for us to be here together, this is something that will bring us together even more. From this common quest we will share more than ancestral heritage and congregational affiliation: we will share an adventure of stunning proportions and unlimited potential. A congregation of shared geography is about to become a congregation of shared purpose. The Civil War has begun. It's time to start being extraordinarily nice. If we all take part, these ten days will shake the world.
Second Day Rosh Hashanah - "The Ten Days" Project
The humorist Art Buchwald once wrote a column about riding in a New York taxi with a friend. When they got out, his friend said to the driver, "Thank you for the ride. You did a superb job of driving." The driver was stunned for a second. Then he said, "Are you a wise guy or something?"
"No, my dear man. and I'm not putting you on. I admire the way you keep cool in heavy traffic."
"Yeah," the driver said and drove off.
"What was that all about?" Buchwald asked his companion.
"I was just trying to bring love back to New York City," he said. "I believe it's the only thing that can save the city."
"How can love save New York?"
"It's not one man. I believe I have made the taxi driver's day. Suppose he has twenty fares. He's going to be nice to those twenty fares because someone was nice to him. Those fares will in turn be kinder to their employees or shop-keepers or waiters or even their own families. Eventually the goodwill could spread to at least 1,000 people. Now that isn't bad, is it?"
"But you're depending on the taxi driver to pass that good will on to others."
"I'm not depending on it," the friend said. "I'm aware that the system isn't foolproof, so I might deal with ten people today. If out of ten, I can make three happy, then eventually I can indirectly influence the attitudes of 3,000 more."
"It sounds good on paper," Buchwald said, "but I'm not so sure it works in practice."
"Nothing is lost if it doesn't," came the response. "It didn't take any of my time to tell that man that he was doing a good job. He neither received a larger tip not a smaller tip. If it fell on deaf ears, so what? Tomorrow there will be another taxi driver whom I can try to make happy."
"You're some kind of nut," Buchwald said.
The friend replied, "That shows how cynical you have become."
We have become so cynical about our world and our ability to change it. So cynical that we have lost that part of the Jewish message that lies at its core: the belief in the enchantment of words. Imagine if all of us complimented cab drivers. Imagine if we all complimented each other.
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin writes of the case of Ian O'Gorman, a ten year old cancer patient in Oceanside, California. The doctors warned him that his ten week regimen of chemotherapy would cause his hair to fall out, so to limit the trauma, the boy had his head shaved. One can only imagine Ian's feelings when he returned to school, prematurely bald, and found that the thirteen other boys in his fifth grade class, and the teacher, greeted him with their heads completely shaved. What an extraordinary gesture, one that didn't require a single word, but one that screamed out I Love You in a manner that transcended words.
Indeed, gestures and words can heal. When we have healing services here, there is no voodoo or laying of hands. All we offer are words of love and support. And they work. In today's reading, when Isaac asked his father where is the lamb for the sacrifice, at this point probably engulfed in fear, Abraham responds, first, "heneni v'ni," I am here my son, then he says, "Elohim yireh lo ha seh l'olah b'ni," "God will provide the lamb for the offering, my son." It was no lie. And Abraham did not know how things would turn out. He was likely hoping against hope. But however he felt, he was placed in extremis, in a situation so dire that no one should have to face it, a choice so excruciating, yet through it all he found the words that could provide the most comfort to his son, most notably the word, b'ni -- my son, which he used twice. Through it all, b'ni. You remain my son, b'ni. I love you more than my actions can ever say, b'ni. With that one word, I can imagine Abraham running his fingers through Isaac's hair and calling him myiskite or motek or sweetie, the way Jewish fathers have been comforting their children ever since Abraham, the way my father caressed me. Jewish fatherhood began on that fateful day with that word "b'ni."
Words are life-affirming, words are enchantment, words have power. Last spring we lost a dear member of our temple family who was an exemplar of the power of positive speaking. Through his career, Mel Allen must have uttered millions of words in public, and yet so few, so few were spoken in malice, so few in anger, so few filled with gossip or spite. That's why he was mourned so passionately by people who never met him. With his kind words, he made people feel special. The letters I received from his fans were a testimony to that power of words. This is the power that we must all marshall.
And now I want to tell you how we can do it. The Ten Days project has two parts; one is to eliminate negative speech from our lives, and the other is to nurture our abilities to speak words that heal. First, out with the bad.
It is our good fortune that the greatest champion of sacred speech that the Jewish world has ever known lived in our century. Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan was also known as the Chafetz Hayyim, the Seeker of Life, after a book he wrote with that title. Kagan was the first to systematize the laws of gossip for a popular audience. He died in 1933, which is just about when everything began to go awry for the civilized world. Now, as distilled by the Chafetz Hayyim, here is how Jewish law instructs us to clean up our use of language.
• It is considered lashon hara, evil speech, to convey a derogatory image of someone even if that image is true and deserved. A statement that is not actually derogatory but can ultimately cause someone physical, financial or emotional harm is also lashon hara.• It is lashon hara to recount an incident that contains embarrassing damaging information about a person, even if there is not the slightest intent that s/he should ever suffer harm or humiliation.• Lashon hara is forbidden by Jewish law even if you incriminate yourself as well.• Lashon hara cannot be communicated in any way shape or form, for instance through writing, verbal hints, even raised eyebrows. When that person you can't stand turns away and you roll your eyes in disgust to a third party, that is a form of slander known as "Avak Lashon Hara," the residue of evil speech.• To speak against a community is a particularly severe offense.• Lashon hara cannot be related even to close relatives, even to your spouse. The columnist Dennis Prager argues that this goes too far, saying, "If you never speak about other people with your partner, you're probably not very intimate with each other." Telushkin suggests that if we are going to gossip we should develop a way of talking about others that is as kindly and fair as we would want others to be when talking about us.• Even something that is already well known should not be repeated. Princess Di had an affair. Yes, she admitted it before billions of people in TV. Too bad. We still can't talk about it unless that information has a direct bearing on the well-being of the person we're talking to.• Tattling is a no no. This is called Rechilut in Hebrew. The crux is this: if you know that a person has spoken badly about your friend, you don't go to your friend and tell him, because all it does is cause him pain and provoke animosity between the friend and that other person. Well, you ask, shouldn't we have a right to hear what's being said about us? In practice, however, the one small piece of gossip transmitted often provides a totally false impression. Who here has never said a negative thing about the person you love the most? How devastating it would be for a so-called friend to tell our loved one about it. Mark Twain said, "It takes your enemy and your friend, working together, to hurt you to the heart; the one to slander you and the other to get the news to you."• And finally, not only does Judaism prohibit the spreading of lashon hara, we can't listen to it either. And when we can't help but hear it, we are instructed not to believe it. Imagine how different our lives would be if everybody gave the victim of gossip the benefit of the doubt. Dick Morris might still be employed. Oliver Sipple might still be alive.
Oliver Sipple was an American hero, an ex-Marine who saved the life of President Ford in 1975 by grabbing an assassin's gun in San Francisco just as she was about to shoot. When reporters came to interview him, he had only one request: that they not publish anything about him. This only led the reporters to dig into his history, and in profiling him they trumpeted the fact that he was active in Gay causes in San Francisco. One reporter confronted Sipple's mother in Detroit and asked about her son's apparent homosexuality. She was visibly stunned; she had known nothing about it. Shortly thereafter, she stopped speaking to her son. When she died four years later, Sipple's father informed his son that he would not be welcome at her funeral. Devastated by the rupture in his family, Sipple began to drink heavily. He became increasingly withdrawn. A few years later, he was found in his apartment, dead at age 47.
The Los Angeles Times reporter who had publicized Sipple's homosexuality made this postmortem comment: "If I had to do it over again," I wouldn't." The Talmud states that the gossiper stands in Syria and kills in Rome. If I were to ask you to please try to refrain from murder over the next several days, you would not think that an unreasonable request. Well, that is exactly what I am asking you to do. This week, we will take a stand in Stamford, and who knows how many lives we will save.
So now, with these principles of Jewish law in mind, what am I asking us all to do this week? Here are some realistic, achievable guidelines on how we can bring ethical speech into our daily lives. And remember this always, bad speech is an addiction, no less than nicotine and alcohol. It will not be easy. But here's what we can at least try to do, using Telushkin's recommendations as a model:
- Regarding gossip that is true, remember: when we make comments, even positive comments, about someone, the conversation can easily drift into a negative direction. When we say, "I think Chuck is great," the next inevitable utterance out of someone's mouth will be, "But..." or "If only he..." Whenever you are about to discuss another person, think about Oliver Sipple.
- Regarding negative truths, recall the advice of the 18th century Swiss theologian, Jonathan K. Lavater: "Never tell evil of a man if you do not know it for a certainty, and if you know it for a certainty, then ask yourself, 'Why should I tell it?'" Sometimes this information must be relayed, if for instance, a person is about to go into business with a convicted embezzler. But then you tell the person who would be affected and no one else; and there is no need to exaggerate. Let the facts speak for themselves. Be specific, be precise, be fair. Otherwise, follow the advice of the ancient sage Ben Sira: "Have you heard something? Let it die with you. Be strong; it will not burst you."
- As for blatant rumors and lies - motzi shem ra: when you are party to a rumor that just doesn't make sense, recall all the lies about the Jews that cost so many millions to suffer and die: the lie that the Black Death was caused because Jews poisoned the wells; the blood libels accusing Jews of using the blood of Christian children in their matzohs, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, accepted to this day by Louis Farrakhan and others who believe in a massive Jewish conspiracy described here last week by Henry Lewis Gates, this outlandish idea that a dozen rabbis rule the world. I happen to know personally that rabbis don't rule the world, we can't even get their congregants to come to morning minyan. Don't believe a rumor, don't spread it, unless there is a real danger to an individual, then you go to that person alone and make sure to say that the rumor is unconfirmed. Needless to say, all cruel ethnic jokes and bigoted comments, anything that stereotypes a group or individual, must be avoided.
- Regarding anger, a very powerful emotion -- let's try to limit our expression of anger to the incident that provoked it and deal directly with the person at whom we are angry. Don't drag in anything and anyone else. And for those of us who have a talent of channeling our anger into the snidest form of humor, one of my specialties, we've got to avoid it. You wouldn't believe how much sarcasm has been excised from these sermons and left on the cutting room floor. It might make my writing less spicy and more boring, but it will be more holy too.
- And we should try to fight fair. The idea in an argument is not to win but to achieve peace, not to embarrass or to humiliate, but to elevate the quality of the relationship. The one comment that we will forever regret, that one knockout punch, is the one that should never leave our lips. How many families have relatives that are not on speaking terms. There is no need for a show of hands. It's probably about half the families here. And how many would there be if only that one last gotcha line had been resisted. And, I should add, if only that terrible line had been taken back, and forgiven. Also, let's stay away from inflammatory language. If you don't like the coffee, there is no need to say, "This coffee is disgusting." Simply brew yourself another cup.
- Criticism often must be offered, but how? Jewish law is very specific about this. It should be offered in private; it should be offered gently and tenderly, and it should be offered out of genuine concern for the wrongdoer. No other format is valid. Public rebuke is simply unacceptable.
- And how should we accept criticism? By resisting the temptation to become defensive or gain revenge by pointing out the weaknesses of the other; rather we should ask ourselves if the criticism is in fact correct, and how can I take this information and improve myself?
- Judaism considers public humiliation as akin to murder. And it can be subtle. The Talmud warns us to be careful not to say in public, "Will someone hang this fish for me," to a person whose relative has been hanged for a crime. I can recall being crushed at age 12 when I must have made some goof up and a boy at camp called me a retard, when in fact my brother is mentally retarded. For us the temptation is always there to make fun of a handicap, a deformation or failure to achieve professional success. How many people have we dubbed a "loser" this year? We just must recall that life and death are in the power of the tongue. For the Jew, heroism is measured in self restraint.
- Lying: let's keep from it, unless the truth would inflict unnecessary pain. When your spouse or child comes downstairs and says "How do I look," think twice before telling the truth. The Talmud goes into a long discussion about what to say if the person looks to you as if he or she just rolled out of an IRT train at 2 A.M. The decision? In most cases, you say, simply, "You look great, honey."
- And what happens, inevitably, when we fail, which we all will do, and often. Let's put it this way: if the speed limit is 55 and you catch yourself doing 60, do you then go up to 100 simply because your speeding anyway? Stay as close to 55 as you can and see what happens. All of this will probably mean that for one week at least you will not be the life of the party; unless everyone at the party happens to be from Beth El. I've actually made this easier for you than it was for me the first time around, because people will know why you're always changing the subject when they want to gossip with you. You can just blame me -- only not by name. And there's no need to cancel hair appointments. Just keep the guidelines in mind and you'll be fine, no matter what anyone else says to you. Our goal is not to change others, at least not overtly, but to improve ourselves. No need to climb into a hole for the week.
And what happens will change our lives. I guarantee it. And that's why I highly recommend that you keep a journal each day of how you confronted various challenges presented you. After Yom Kippur, I would love it if some of you could write some general conclusions and even jot down some non incriminating anecdotes and send them to me. Perhaps they could be compiled as primary source material for the coming generation to learn about the Ten Days that changed our community and changed our lives.
I said that this Ten Days project has two parts. Once we've eliminated the bad, we can fill that space with good words. And this is what we should inscribe into the Book of Life this week: Words of appreciation. Words of understanding. Words of forgiveness. Words of love. In other words, prayer. Whether spoken to God or to your spouse, parent or child, all created in God's image, these are prayers. When the week is over, it would be wonderful if you could write down some of your own personal prayers, and perhaps these too could be collected and compiled. I would love to have our congregation write a prayerbook, a supplement much like the yellow book we use on the Holidays, but available to everyone every day of the year. And created exclusively by us. What a magnificent offering that would be. Send me your poems; send me your passages; send me your favorite quotes, yes even things that you didn't write but that have special meaning to you. Some congregations compile cookbooks. Let us create a prayerbook. Our Ten Days journey will have an even longer lasting impact if we share our experiences and our hopes and dreams as well.
Allow me to describe for you what happened to me when I tried to be extraordinarily nice, cold turkey for a day earlier this year. Just to give you a taste of what we are in for, let me quote from my journal entries of that day. I began at 5:00 on a Monday afternoon.
5:30: my mother calls. By 5:40 I decide to postpone the beginning of my Speak No Evil Day until after the phone call. I refuse to answer the phone for the rest of the night. Next morning. I tip toe out the door before anyone else is awake. Later, driving to my rounds at the hospital, I switch the radio from anything that resembles lashon ha-ra to something safe. I bypass Imus and Stern and land on classical music. I miss the dirt. I need coffee.
9:25: An elderly patient whispers to me that the hospital is filled with anti semites conspiring to steal her flowers. I hold her hand, calmly, saying, "The people here are very nice." The word nice is beginning to get to me. As I leave the hospital, I smile at everyone, including an orderly sweeping the floor. He seems agitated. I am stepping on his mop.
11:30: Back in the office, I take a phone call from a man moving to the 'burbs from Manhattan. I try to talk up Stamford without saying anything derogatory about the noisy, filthy, crime infested city he inhabits. It's not easy. I'm famished.
With each encounter that follows, I walk on eggshells. A close friend calls, a primary source for community gossip. I'm afraid to ask a simple, "How is everything" for fear of getting us started. I have a deep thirst for some juicy stuff and sense an unnatural distance between us. What can I say to convey warmth without it being at the expense of innocent others? Through the day, I manage to deflect deprecatory comments about everyone from the Lubavicher Rebbe to Yasser Arafat.
3:30: I am courteous, through gritted teeth, to a phone solicitor offering a VISA gold card to "Rabie Hammerman" 3:40: I stand before 75 restless Hebrew School students, with a splitting headache and a desire to dock them from life eternal if they don't calm down. I'm ready to give myself over to a higher power.
Exhausted, I go home, flick on the tube and hear Dole attacking Forbes. I turn it off. In local news, one of my children informs me that the other was pinching and kicking at gymnastics class. From day one we are programmed to blame and defame. I understand now that with or without a Senate resolution, each of us will have to shake this addiction alone, step by step, word by word. But it will be much easier if we do it together.
I was asked by someone, "How can you measure success?" We have already succeeded. If only some of us become only a little bit more sensitive to the use of language, we have succeeded. We have just begun. What happens from here is entirely up to you. And I have a great faith in the people of this congregation and in people in general. If a man can jump off the Tappan Zee Bridge to save a total stranger, several hundred people can try to be nice for a week. But it doesn't matter now -- my words have been released like feathers in the wind, and I know not where they will land.
The Chafetz Hayyim wrote a prayer, which he recited each morning to help him maintain vigilance inShmirat Ha-lashon. I close with an excerpt:
Gracious and merciful God, help me to restrain myself from speaking or listening to derogatory, damaging or hostile speech. I will try not to engage in lashon ha-ra, either about individuals or about an entire group of people. I will strive to say nothing that contains falsehood, insincere flattery, scoffing or elements of needless dispute, anger, arrogance, oppression or embarrassment to others. Grant me the strength to say nothing unnecessary, so that all my actions and speech cultivate a love for your creatures and for You.
At the beginning of the Amida we whisper a verse taken from the psalms: Oh Adonai, open my lips that my mouth might speak Your praise." Every time I say that prayer, I allow those words to roll off my tongue slowly. Like the shofar, our voices are echoes of divinity; each utterance contains a whispering remnant of the thunder at Sinai. Let that thundering whisper roll from our lips this week. May God grant all of us the courage to do something outlandishly good and decent these next eight days, and may our own words inscribe the entire world for life in the year - and the journey - that we have just begun.
Source material taken from the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), Talmud, Midrashic Collections and High Holidays Machzor, as well as...
Words That Hurt, Words That Heal: How to Choose Words Wisely and Well, by Joseph Telushkin (William Morrow and Co. N.Y., 1996)
Chofetz Chaim: A Lesson A Day -- The Concepts and Laws of Proper Speech, (based on works of Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan of Radin, Sefer Chafetz Chaim and Shmiras Halashon) (Mesorah Publications, Brooklyn, N.Y., in conjunction with the Chafetz Chaim Heritage Foundation, 620 Coney Island Ave., Brooklyn, N.Y. 11218 / (718) 871-6700 or (800) 867-2482)
It's A Mitzvah: Step-by-Step to Jewish Living, by Bradley Shavit Artson (Behrman House, W.Orange N.J., and Rabbinical Assembly, New York, N.Y., 1996)