For Earth Day - see below
This Shabbat-O-Gram is sponsored by Hilary and Craig Feinstein,
in honor of Zachary becoming bar Mitzvah this Shabbat
In my prior posting, I discussed many of this weekend's exciting happenings. So now I move on to more substantive matters:
David Ortiz's (Bleeping) Expletive: A Lesson from Leviticus
Last weekend, with Bostonians celebrating the end of their excruciating, week-long siege, Red Sox slugger David Ortiz wrapped things up in one brief exclamation. "This is our (bleeping) city!" he cried, and the crowd went wild, while in bars across America, millions of people turned to total strangers and asked, "Did he just SAY that?"
Well, I taped the event and, although his accent is not always easy to decipher, yes, he did.
ESPN was on tape delay, so they managed to catch it and bleep it out. But NESN and the MLB Network were not so fortunate. Neither were the radio broadcasts and all the five year old children at Fenway that day; but that probably doesn't matter, because their parents weren't exactly covering their kids' ears. Everyone was just happy to be happy and Ortiz' expletive apparently was the most emphatic way to express that.
I admit. I was too busy laughing through my tears to worry about the ballplayer's proclamation, moved as I was by the pregame tribute and the indefatigable nature of my hometown, and relieved that the (bleeping) bombers had been caught.
But now, a week later, it's time to question whether we have (bleeping) gone too far, to the point where every (bleeping) conversation is beginning to sound like a Nixon tape.
Why do we (bleeping) need to swear so (bleeping) much? Have we lost the ability to converse, to articulate emphasis without resorting to insulting people's sexual behavior, especially in regard to their mothers?
Simon Critchley wrote recently in the New York Times, "We know swear words are literally meaningless.... Yet they carry a force that compels us. This is why many of us like to swear a lot. It feels really good to swear and really bad to be sworn at. Swearing always aims at something intimate, something usually hidden, which is why the words are often so explicitly and violently sexual."
Thousands of years ago, the book of Leviticus said (in this week's Torah portion) essentially the same thing. In chapter 24, two Israelites are having a fight. One had an Egyptian father, which may have been the cause of some resentment or friction between the two. Who knows? But the end result was that one of them cursed, meaning that he blasphemed God's name, and the punishment was determined to be stoning.
On the face of it, the whole thing seems absurd, like the scene right out of Monty Python. Come to think of it, this WAS a scene from a Monty Python flick. But the deeper message of this passage, and of the entire book of Leviticus, is that words matter. Jewish tradition compares the one who gossips to a murderer. The very next verse, in fact, deals with the laws of murder, making this comparison most explicit, not just for the idle gossiper, but specifically for the one who curses God.
For what does it mean to curse God's name? If, as we read in Genesis, every human being is created in God's image, that divine part of us that is the essence of our humanity. To insult God is to debase our own innate godliness, our human capacity for goodness and kindness.
Sometimes curses can be a creative way of dealing with powerlessness. We see that inthe colorful Yiddish curses that have sprung up over the centuries. And sometimes Jews have had good reason to shake their fist at the heavens. When Job's wife implores him, "Curse God and die," Job has every reason to do just that - but he refuses to, recognizing that God's blessings and curses are intertwined. In fact, the very word translated as "curse" in Job 2:9 is "barekh", which also means to bless. Job refuses to render God one dimensional, the source only of evil and not of life's blessings too.
That's what cursing does. It turns God into a stereotype. In rendering God one dimensional, it renders all language one dimensional. Once "bleeping" becomes your only way of express emphasis and passion, you are unable to communicate creatively, to probe the complexity of deeper feelings. It all comes back to the bleeping expletive.
Swearing takes the bedroom and turns it into the bathroom. Rather than elevating the mundane experiences of everyday life, as the holiness code of Leviticus implores us to do - in what we eat, who we love, how we treat our neighbors and how we talk - swearing does just the opposite. It takes all that is sacred and holy and tosses it onto Job's ash heap: our food, our physical expressions of love, our body parts, our holy anger - even God's divine self. All swearing is ultimately a form of blasphemy. it is a choice not of life but of decay and stagnation. To swear is to succumb to impulse rather than rising above it.
I confess. I swear - but only rarely. So when I swear, you KNOW I'm mad. You can just ask my kids. Sometimes we all lose control. But when I encounter supposedly pious Jews with foul mouths, it makes me wonder how far their piety really extends. If they are so abusive with language, so unable to control themselves from inflicting verbal blows on God, are they really able to control their gossip, their tempers, and even their physical abuse of others? Can someone who has garbage constantly coming out of his mouth really be vigilant about the kashrut of the things that go into it? Are people that needy of appearing cool? Is (bleeping) swearing the only password into society these days?
The universe, the commandments, everything that we hold sacred came into the world through divine speech. And now we are losing the sanctity of speech.
I don't blame David Ortiz for this. He didn't cause the problem. (In fact, to be blunt, it was Yankee fans who started it, with all those indignant chants about Boston, which I bet they regret now!) Even the FCC gave Ortiz a pass on that one. His passionate outburst did indeed reflect how Bostonians felt after finally being released from the grip of the psychological - and real - pressure cooker. But it is sad that there wasn't another way to say "This is OUR CITY!"
Studies show that our society hasn't gotten worse, at least since the Swearin' '70s, just that foul language has become less regulated since the days of George Carlin's pre-HBO "Seven Words you Can't Say on Television." Nothing wrong with more freedom. What's wrong is, once the thrill of breaking one taboo is gone, it's all too easy to go on to the next one.
As our society rightly focuses its attention on our addiction to violence and in particular to guns, and on the danger of super-empowered angry young men armed with violent language and Ak-47s, maybe we should spend a moment reflecting on that instant when that anger first gets out of control. Long before the pressure cookers and semi automatic guns, long before the bloody video games, there is filthy, unchecked language. Long before bullets, it is the words that wound. Creation began with words and social disintegration does too.
In the beginning, there was the Word. And it didn't begin with an F.
Also regarding Boston: See my Times of Israel posting, "Boston and Jerusalem"
See also last week's parsha packet, "Don't Stand Idly By"
Lag B'Omer is a nice time for Jews to come together to celebrate our common heritage. That's what families will be doing this Sunday afternoon at the JCC, a Lag B'Omer celebration sponsored by several local congregations.
Another significant partnering will take place on May 7, Jerusalem Day, here at 7:30. I'll be joined by a Reform rabbi and a Reconstructionist one, Rabbis Jay TelRav and Nicole Wilson-Spiro, as we discuss some remarkable events happening in Israel right now in the area of religious pluralism. Mark your calendars for this special, free seminar from the Hartman Institute's iEngage series, co-sponsored by the Board of Rabbis, UJF and JCC:
"Pluralism at the Plaza and Human Rights in Israel: Is the Sharansky Plan a Game Changer?
As a democracy, Israel is committed to being religiously pluralistic and to providing equal rights to all of its citizens, Jews and non-Jews alike. Does Israel's Jewish dimension serve or hinder these commitments? What principles and ideas ought to govern Israel's policies on these issues? Does the new Sharansky plan to bring Jewish diversity to the Kotel Plaza, along with the success of the Women of the Wall, mean that non-Orthodox streams in Israel have now achieved the legitimacy they have sought for so long?
For more background on the Kotel plan, see "A Note from Sharansky"
And this just in: More great news on the pluralism front. A Jerusalem court upheld a ruling defending the right of women to wear a a tallit at the Kotel without being arrested. I recall how ashamed I was a few years ago when one of our teenagers proudly showed me the tallis she had just purchased in the Cardo and, as we descended toward the Kotel she asked if she could put it on. I grabbed it and shook my head, saying "You could get arrested." Now she can wear it and take her place proudly among her people. We are outcasts no more! And just as importantly, Israel can at last become a light unto the Jews. All the Jews.
Time to "Lag" On!
Lag B'Omer is this Sunday. OK so, what is Lag B'Omer? It's complicated. Click here for the web journey answer.
Little Orphan Annie is not the first to have extolled the virtues of tomorrow. It's done in this week's portion. Leviticus 23:15 speaks of the Omer, that 49 day period of counting between Passover and Shavuot, of which Lag B'Omer is the 33rd day. The portion addresses the question, when do we start counting? The traditional practice is to begin counting on the second night of Passover. But the Torah doesn't say that. In our portion, it states, "Mi'macharat ha-Shabbat," literally "on the morrow of the Sabbath (Fox)."
O.K., so we begin counting the day after Shabbat? Not so fast.
For a Jew, tomorrow is never merely the day after today. Tomorrow is the better day that we are forging, one day closer to redemption, one day closer to an eternal Shabbat. And if redemption does not arrive tomorrow -- to paraphrase that well-known song from the Israeli musical pantheon, "Machar" -- then perhaps it will the day after tomorrow.
Problem #1 with this verse: Which Shabbat? The one during Pesach? The one after Pesach? Rashi and others conclude that because no specific Shabbat is mentioned, the word Shabbat is not referring to Shabbat at all.
This matter later became a major point of dispute between the rabbinic sages and a heretical sect called the Boethusians, who interpreted the term literally, claiming that the Omer had to be brought on a Sunday, the day after Shabbat, and the counting begin then. Logic might tell us to climb on the Boethusian bandwagon here, but the rabbis faced another dilemma:
Problem #2: When does Shavuot fall? If we're to begin the count always on a Sunday, Shavuot will fall on a different Hebrew date every year. Now we're used to that here in America. Many of our holidays are set not by specific dates but by days of the week (Thanksgiving, Presidents Day, etc.). But Shavuot, as the rabbis understood it, is most analogous to the Fourth of July, which always falls on, well, the Fourth of July, and for good reason. The day marks the birth of America as a covenantal entity. The Declaration of Independence established a dramatic, new relationship between government and governed. It was the birthday of an idea. Shavuot, at least since rabbinic times (though not in the biblical period) marks a similar birth, the ratification of the covenant of Sinai, and it needed a fixed date. The only way to do that was to interpret "the morrow of Shabbat" to mean not Shabbat itself, but rather some fixed date related to Passover.
So, when is Shabbat not Shabbat? Well, some have suggested (e.g. Michael Fishbane, as quoted in Everett Fox' notes) that Shabbat originally meant "full moon," which coincides with the first day of Pesach. Therefore, we begin the counting on the second day of Pesach, on the "morrow after the full moon." But the most widely accepted rabbinic view is to see Shabbat as a verb rather than a noun, as an indication of the act of resting rather than THE day of rest; thus rendering the verse, "on the morrow of the day of resting." The term could refer to any day when we don't work. The day of resting being alluded to here would not be Shabbat at all, then, but rather the first day of Passover, when work also is prohibited.
Lovely. So the rabbis fixed this original hitch in the Jewish calendar by reprogramming the Torah at Shabbat's expense. They solved the world's first Y-Jew-K glitch by manipulating our cerebral software so that the word Shabbat would not be understood as the day called Shabbat. "Just erase that day from your memory banks, members of the Jewry," the sages are telling us.
Is it just me, or does this form of rabbinic doublespeak bother anyone else out there?
Before we all join the Boethusian foreign legion, let me offer up a compromise solution. Here's a way to have our hallah and eat it too, with some matzah and blintzes on the side. Click here to read the rest of the commentary.
In honor of Earth Day, the opening of Mill River Park and the upcoming installation of 847 solar panels on our roof:
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman