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05/24/2019 09:12:26 AM


Rabbi Robinson

Friday, May 24, 2019

I’ve spoken before on how I enjoy my experience as a member of Rotary. I appreciate being a part of a club devoted to service, one with an opportunity for weekly fellowship, full of people committed this city, even though we are in vastly different professions and have often very different political and cultural perspectives. I truly enjoy my Thursday afternoon meetings, with one exception: I dread the introduction of new members. This would seem counterintuitive: I’ve only been a member a couple of years, after all, and being a member club, you’d think I’d rejoice in welcoming new folks in. And in that respect, you’re correct. I have no problem with new members; I have a problem with the introduction of new members. Inevitably, the sponsor gets up to say something, and has this captive audience of 75 or so folks to say something nice about this person who’s about to commit to the group…and they botch it. I’ve heard off-color jokes as recently as this week that put the new member on the spot. I’ve heard people repeat how wonderful it is that the person is joining despite “not being a native of Wilmington”, as if to emphasize the outsider status of the individual you want to welcome in. It’s basically the most cringe-worthy couple of minutes of any given week, and I hate it!

I especially hate it because it’s so the opposite of what we usually do. Normally, this feels like one of the few venues are there left in today’s America where people who are different—different experiences, different walks of life, different politics, different faiths—can come together and speak peaceably with one another  Somehow, the four-way test takes over, and our conversations are measured by whether our words are the truth, whether they are fair, whether they build goodwill, and whether they are beneficial. It’s as if the lessons we’ve learned about the thoughtful, kind conversations we have go out the window as soon as a person gets a microphone in front of them.

I don’t think the people speaking mean ill. I don’t think they mean to embarrass anyone or make anybody uncomfortable.  I think they just really don’t understand how much damage their words do. And honestly, do any of us? Honestly, how often do we find ourselves profoundly offended by the words of another, and when we confront them, discover that they don’t even remember saying the words that so tormented us? Or, how often have we said something in all innocence, only to find out we have done real damage? I can tell you it happened to me at least once this past week where I said something that I thought was innocuous, but inadvertently made someone feel publicly called out (which is not a thing that I do). Thankfully they called me to talk over the conversation so I could straighten things out, but seriously…oy! On the other hand, I’ve had the experience of former students who tell me how something I said fifteen years ago when they were thirteen or sixteen has impacted them so profoundly, that they took those words to heart and have carried them around as a guiding star their entire young lives…and I have zero recollection saying anything of the kind. Now, this is nicer, but again…oy!

Our words matter, and how we use them can have lasting impact, both positive and negative. The text of our Torah is explicit that we must watch how we speak to one another. In verse seventeen of chapter 25, we read

וְלֹ֤א תוֹנוּ֙ אִ֣ישׁ אֶת־עֲמִית֔וֹ וְיָרֵ֖אתָ מֵֽאֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ כִּ֛י אֲנִ֥י יְהֹוָ֖ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃

Do not wrong one another, but fear your God; for I the Eternal am your God.

The rabbis debate, what does it really mean to wrong one another? Is this about commerce? Is this just to say ‘be excellent to one another’, a la Bill And Ted’s Excellent Adventure? After all, this is, on face value, a pretty bland commandment. So just…be nice? And isn’t it good to be nice? That can’t be it, is it? As a matter of fact, no, that’s not it. Our old friend Rashi, that medieval Frenchman, tells us that this mitzvah is a warning against vexing people with our words, by annoying them, or giving them unfit advice. And if you think that you can get away with it, because who can tell your intention, we are reminded that we should fear Adonai our God; that is to say, we may be able to disguise the intentions of our words from one another, but God knows our intentions, our real intentions, before we even open our mouths. Sforno, writing a few centuries later, adds to this, insisting that you may not even use your words to misrepresent and therefore treat the other person unfairly. And in case you think this only applies between or among Jews—it does say “don’t wrong your fellow citizen”, after all—the Ramchal brings the Talmud in to remind us that to deceive a non-Jew is forbidden (Chulin 94a).

The words we say have power, have meaning. Perhaps there was a time when we could pretend that our words were meaningless, or didn’t do any real or lasting damage, but we have been reminded as of late of the power of words to do real harm. The words that whip up the mob or even just single individuals to take violent action against minorities. The words that drive out the marginalized or vulnerable and cause them to fear for their safety, or even worse, cause them to do violence to their own selves. And we should be asking ourselves the question: how are we using our words? How do we speak to one another in our day to day interactions? And I would ask us to look inward—too often I find that when the topic of speech comes up people are very quick to point the finger in any direction but their own; ‘those people need to be more careful in what they say.’ Those people? Excuse me? There may be truth in that, but if we only feel the sting of others’ words directed at ourselves, but don’t evaluate the potential hurt that our own words may cause others, well, perhaps we should do some self-work before we offer oh-so-helpfully to assist other people, those people, with their speech problems.

Once, a wealthy man, a scholar, sent his servant to the marketplace. “Go and buy me something good from the market.” “He went and brought back tongue. Must be from the old country. Curious about his purchase, the scholar decided to have some fun with his servant. “Now go and buy something bad from the market.” The servant went and brought back…tongue. The scholar lost it. “What is this?” He said.” When I told you to buy me something good, you bought tongue, and when I said to buy something bad, you bought tongue!” The servant replied, “that’s because both good and bad comes from it. When it is good, there is nothing better, and when it is bad, there’s nothing worse!” (Leviticus Rabbah 33:1)

We understand that the servant in our story wasn’t talking about the quality of the meat when he said this, but rather that which the tongue itself produces; that is, speech. There is nothing better and nothing worse than speech. May we take those words to heart, and as we open our lips to speak, remember the words of the psalm, the words we use to anticipate the Amidah: Open my Lips, that my mouth may only declare God’s glory. Amen.  

Sat, July 13 2024 7 Tammuz 5784