I've been thinking quite a bit about words, lately. Last week, I was on a four day silent retreat. It wasn't total silence – there were periods when we were allowed or encouraged to talk, but for large sections of the day we remained in silence. This practice stems from the belief that too many words — whether spoken or listened to — can get in the way of paying attention to what's going on inside of us. Of listening to the internal conversation which happens without words. Even when we spoke, we were encouraged to let our words come out of a place of silence. To listen to that internal conversation, think seriously about what, if anything, we had to say, and also to think about the impact of our words — on others, and on ourselves — before we said them.
You can imagine how hard it was to transition back into the "real world." Going from retreat to the airport can be a bit jarring, to say the least. But, the biggest shock for me came from Facebook. Not the general chatter so much as the seemingly endless stream of posts and articles about the conflict (war, really) in Israel and Gaza. So many people were posting so much, and all of it, it seemed, was so angry. Vicious, even. That's not surprising — what's going on is pretty awful, to say the least. And polarizing.
Also not surprising was that reading those pieces made me angry, as well. Those who spoke out against Israel obviously made me angry. But, the pieces which supported Israel — which pointed out the terrible situation which Hamas has placed them in, which pointed out all the horrific things Hamas continues to do to them — made me angry in a different way. Again, not so surprising.
But, I began to notice that anger wasn't the only, and maybe not the dominant, emotion. There was a terrible sense of sadness, as well. I'm not talking about sadness regarding the situation itself. Let me be clear — there was that sadness, too, and what's going on in Israel is obviously and literally a matter of life and death, and so it's much more important than this other sadness I'm talking about. But, the additional sadness I was feeling came from the realization of how much we all seem to be using our words to hurt, to inflame, to accuse, to anger. And, it came from thinking about the larger effects of those words, about which I don't believe we think enough.
Words always have effects. And words have side effects and unintended consequences. Because, words are powerful. Terribly so.
It's long been one of my favorite insights and lessons from Judaism — the power of words. It's captured perfectly in the Hebrew — Devarim, the name of this week’s Torah portion, means both "words" and "things." We tend to think of words as the least "thingy" of things. They’re ephemeral, less substantial than mist. They’re "just words." Judaism understands that, actually, words are incredibly substantial. Words are things. Despite what we tell our children to say, we have probably all been hurt more by words than by sticks and stones in our lives. That is precisely why we give them that mantra — we know how dangerous words really are. Words are the most powerful devices that most of us will ever wield.
And, words are one of the most human things about us. One of the terms which medieval Jewish philosophers used for human beings was medabrim—speakers. Makers of words. Words are, to a large extent, who we are. They're certainly how we are seen by others. And, words are how we create ourselves. They are who we will become.
We like to think that words are just there to express what is already inside of us. But, that's not the whole story. Words change us. It's obvious that words which we hear, if taken seriously, can change us. But, words that we speak can change us, as well.
Words spoken in anger don't release that anger, and they don't dispel that anger. They increase it. They rile us up. Words of hate don't just express hate. They reinforce it, and they nurture it. Words express who we are, but they also define who we are going to become. Don't believe me? Try this — go up to someone you love. Tell them what you're about to do and why, so that it's totally safe. Playacting. Then, look at them in the eye and, with all the passion you can muster say to them, "I hate you." Say it like you mean it. Or, at the very least, imagine doing so. How does that feel? Don't tell me that that moment won't affect you. That it won't, at all, damage that other person, and you, and your relationship. That those words can ever be "just words."
Words really are powerful. Words are never just words. They're things.
That's why, since I left the silence of retreat, I been unwilling to post or share almost anything about Israel. Because I just can't stop thinking about the reverberations of those words. I keep asking myself not only do I believe what these words say, not only do I agree with them, but do I want those to be the words coming out of my mouth, even if it's only a virtual mouth? Do I want these words to be the words which define me?
I want to be careful here, because I'm not trying to suggest that we should only ever say nice things. The world is not always a nice place, and there are times for speaking truthfully about that. If our words have power, then we have to be willing to use those words, and that power, sometimes. Our words of support for Israel, and our words of condemnation for Hamas, are part of a larger conversation, and they can have an effect on the world. As someone who believes passionately about the power of Social Justice, about speaking truth to power, and naming evil when we see it, I'm not about to become, and I'm not hoping that you will become, some kind of Pollyanna who refuses to acknowledge, or fight against, the worst of the world. God forbid.
But, sometimes – sometimes — something being true isn't enough of a reason to say it. Let me give one example, to try to make clear what I'm trying to say. Imagine that a leader of Hamas calls for the death of all Jews. I could respond by saying that I hope that he dies, instead. This isn't really a hypothetical example; it's just a simplified version of any number of conversations and articles and posts I've read this past week. And, it's not morally wrong, or dishonest. If I am being totally honest, I do hope he dies, certainly before he can help kill any Jews.
But, what happens when I say that, out loud? When I post it on Facebook? "I hope he dies. I hope he rots in hell." Does my saying that make anyone in Israel safer? Does it make it any less likely that he'll be able to help kill anyone? Maybe, I guess. Maybe a tiny bit. But, what happens to me, when I say it? What happens to the person to whom I say it? We feed our anger and our hate. We become a tiny bit coarser. We become a tiny bit less noble. Maybe we become a little bit less like our ideal selves.
What would happen if I were to say to you, "I hope that man finds peace. I hope that man wakes up, and no longer wants anyone to die." Will it have any effect on him? No, of course not. It won't make him want to kill me any less. It won't make him any more able to kill me. But, again, what will those words, those things, do to me? What would it do to me if I try my best to practice what Rabbi Jill Jacobs, in a blog widely distributed on Facebook this week, calls "Radical Empathy?" What if I try, in every possible situation, to use words of caring? Words of love? Words of peace? What would that do to me?
Rabbi Israel Salanter once said:
When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world.
I found it was difficult to change the world, so I tried to change my nation.
When I found I couldn't change the nation, I began to focus on my town.
I couldn't change the town and as an older man, I tried to change my family.
Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself, and suddenly I realize that if long ago I had changed myself, I could have made an impact on my family. My family and I could have made an impact on our town.
Their impact could have changed the nation and I could indeed have changed the world.
Yehiyu l’ratzon imrei fi, v’hegyon libi lefanecha, Adonai tzuri v’goali
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable to You, Adonai, my Rock and my Redeemer.
This is a version of the sermon given Friday night, Aug 1, 2014