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September 21, 2017

Keep Your Eye on the Ball: Our Words Matter (Rosh HaShanah 5778)

Maurice A. Salth

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Handout with ways to better speak with one another

Our words matter.

What we say can change a person’s life.

Michael Gardner was 4 years old on September 11th, 2001.  He lived in Manhattan with his parents and younger sister.  That day, his father Doug was killed in the attacks on the World Trade Center.  Benjamin Weinberg, also four years old, was Michael’s best friend.  Soon after September 11th Benjamin’s parents told him that Michael’s daddy had died.  When the boys were playing together Benjamin’s parents overheard him say: “Michael, I will always share my daddy with you.”

I spoke with both Michael and Benjamin recently.  They are each in their own right impressive young men.  They are now in college, in their junior year - still the best of friends.  They speak on the phone regularly and every so often even live stream our services from their campuses.  Michael has never forgotten what that Benjamin said to him that September day.  None of us who have heard what Benjamin said will ever forget.

Sam Zaro loved to tell this story.  When Sam was a teenager he showed up at a Jewish dance at his local YMHA in Newark.  He had emigrated from Poland a few years earlier, barely spoke English and was just finding his way.  He arrived at the Y to learn the dance had an admission fee of 25 cents.  Sam was penniless.

When the woman at the front door learned Sam did not have any money.  She looked him right in the eye, nodded her head, smiled and said: “come on in, you can pay me another time.”

Why did Sam retell this story so often throughout his life?  His daughter Linda explained to me that Sam was embarrassed to be poor and this woman, she did not see him as a charity case.  She spoke to him with respect.  Her communication was clear, direct and kind.  That night she opened the door to a dance and to a life that unfolded beyond.  Their brief conversation stayed with Sam until the day he died at the age of 94.

Our Words are Powerful

Our words matter.  What we say and how we say them.  Our words can change people’s lives forever.  How we speak to one another has been a priority for Jewish texts, commentators and congregants for millennia.  What we say has power.

Our Hebrew Bible states that the tongue has the might of life and death (Proverbs 18:21).  Words can destroy a reputation, break a heart; shatter a spirit.  Other Jewish sources compare malicious speech to murder.  Murder.  And we also know what we say can be a priceless gift that can connect us, buoy and strengthen us and build the strongest of foundations for our lives.

How does the universe come into being in the stories of the Torah?  God says: “Let there be light”; the Torah states: “There was light”.  “Let there be water and land,” says God; the Torah affirms: “It was so”; God pronounces: “Let there be the sun and the moon, animals, fish and humanity” the Torah declares: “It was so.”  God speaks the earth, the heavens and all the earth’s creatures into existence. Our tradition makes it clear from the very beginning that what we utter has the capacity to create the world around us.

Do you know the word abracadabra is derived from ancient Hebrew?  Abracadabra, a brilliant word!  Abracadabra from the ancient Hebrew and Aramaic means, what I speak will come to be.  Words create reality.

With our words, we are magicians!  We have prodigious power – our speech.  We are told clearly time and time again to use words wisely and carefully.  We teach our children this from the earliest age.

Since last Rosh Hashanah our public and private dialogue has reached terrible depths.  This is not the first time our nation has struggled with how we speak with one another.  I know there are people in this congregation who lived during the strife of the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam era and other times when coarse language among citizens led to violence.  We Jews only have to look at our history, both ancient and modern, to be reminded that hateful and dehumanizing words can lead to abject horror.

Today the epicenter of this mean-spirited, spiteful and sometimes vile speech has been our political world.  It’s throughout our culture, we see it everywhere: reality television, Facebook, twitter, cable news.  I could go on and I know you could too.

Technology is connected to this dynamic.  We are living in a fundamentally new era that has provided fertile ground for disseminating every kind of message instantaneously.  Too often people speak without stopping to reflect on what they are saying and too often the lowest common denominator prevails.  I often find myself each morning shaking my head in disbelief at the vitriolic speech I witness on my screens.  I have heard this from many of you as well.  We have lost our way.  What are we to do?

Do Not Hate, Be a Mensch

Rabbi Hillel, the pre-eminent, pre-internet sage who lived two thousand years ago teaches that at its core Judaism is about being kind and taking care of ourselves and one another.  He taught: “What is hateful to you do not to another.  This is the entirety of the Torah” he said, “all the rest is commentary, go and learn it. (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a)”

One of our initial responses to hateful speech may be to reflect that hatred right back onto its perpetrator.  To respond to hate with hate.  We might experience the emotion of hate within ourselves and that is why Hillel’s words are so clear about this subject.  “What is hateful to you do not do to another.”  Hillel’s choice of words is intentional.  It is much too easy to give into our emotions when we experience hate.  Hillel wanted us to take a stand against it and stop the cycle of violence hate brings.  This is why Judaism is categorically opposed to hating another, even if the other is behaving in the most horrific manner.  There is another way.  Rabbi Hillel illumined this path.

He said strive to be a person of integrity - אִישׁ לִהְיוֹת הִשְׁתַּדֵּל ,אֲנָשִׁים שֶׁאֵין וּבְמָקוֹם.  “In a place where no one is being a mensch, strive to be a mensch (Pirke Avot 2:5)

Like a wise parent, Hillel does not go into a litany of detail about how to do this, but we know.  We know from the entirety of the Torah and its commandments.  We know from its moral code and commentary that acts of kindness, peace and justice are at the center of our tradition.  And when we pause to access our heart and soul we know intrinsically how we should be speaking with and taking care of each other.  We know.

Hillel understood we are impacted by the greater culture around us.  We are influenced by each other.  Daily doses of contemptuous language can become normal.  We might have even caught ourselves talking in ways we find unacceptable.  Perhaps we have fallen into the trap of covering up our unruly behavior with some sort of excuse.  Judaism has no tolerance for me speaking harshly in the name of ‘not suffering fools’ or because I grew up in a tough neighborhood in Suffolk County.  Yes, there are some tough areas of Suffolk County.  Even those who grew up in Queens are not exempt; none of us are exempt from our principles of behavior. If we are following our tradition, then whether we are in the board room, our living room, a private Facebook discussion room or even a locker room, we have no business using our words in ways that demean and hurt.  And we cannot justify speaking harshly to those that are the closest to us because we are so close.  On the contrary, we should endeavor to be the most careful with our family and friends; people we often describe as being the dearest to us.  Even if they annoy us; especially if they annoy us; even if it’s hard because we are with them day in and day out…this is the point of these standards of ours.

Hillel’s reminds us, no matter the situation, we need to take care of each other.  We need to be the mensch – especially when others are not.

When we take this position, we can encourage others around us to follow our lead, to be influenced by us.  With regard to our elected officials, we should write to them and let them know we expect them to be civil; to stop being hostile; to dedicate their efforts to creating a dignified city, state and nation where we can live in peace and thrive among one another.  This is how they should be spending their time.

Communication in Crisis

We have thousands of years of discerned wisdom as to what’s at stake with how we speak with each other.  Among them are stories of how we might talk when crisis strikes.

The Rabbis teach Moses, at a time of personal stress and loss, was admonished for how he behaved.  Just after the death of his sister Miriam, Moses is told to provide water to throngs of thirsty and kvetchy Israelites by speaking to a rock.  The act of talking to the stone would release the water.  Unnerved by Miriam’s death he screams at all the people calling them rebels, and viciously strikes the rock he is supposed to be talking to.  Because of this public display of verbal and physical aggression the Rabbis explain that Moses was punished and prevented from entering the Promised Land (Numbers 20:11).  Who knows what promised lands our inappropriate speech might keep us from entering?

In the biblical story of Ruth we see that words can be a means to healing and recovery in a catastrophe.

Ruth is the gentile daughter-in-law of Naomi.  They are living in Ruth’s homeland, an area near Israel called Moab.  Naomi’s husband dies and soon so does her son, Ruth’s husband.  They are bereft and impoverished and Naomi decides to return to Israel. Naomi urges her daughter-in-law Ruth to stay in her native Moab and return to her parents’ home for the best chance of a new life with her own people.

But Ruth is dedicated to her mother-in-law Naomi.  She tells Naomi: “Don’t ask me to leave you, where you go I will go, your people shall be my people, your God my God; wherever your journey takes you, I’ll stay with you.”  Ruth makes it clear with her words as her bond that she has cast her lot with Naomi, no matter what.

Naomi hears her, witnesses Ruth’s determination, and stops arguing.  Although destitute, Ruth and Naomi help each other find their way back to Israel where they slowly begin to recover.  Ruth remarries and has a son.  The last verse of Ruth’s story explains that the foremost king of Israel, King David, emerges from her family line.  David is Ruth’s great grandson (Ruth chapters 1, 2, and 4).  The devotion of this mother Naomi and daughter-in-law Ruth changes the course of Jewish history.

It has been a cataclysmic month for our nation with Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.  I have been heartened by survivors standing beside their flooded homes who have said: “Our family is safe, that is what is most important.  We have each other and we’ll figure out the rest.”  Clear words of love, compassion, and devotion can restore.  No matter our situation, within each of us is a voice that can heal us in crisis and lift us out of the abyss.

Recommitting Ourselves to our Best Speech

For months as I prepared this sermon, I’ve tried to embrace the high benchmark of speech set forth by our tradition and it has been difficult.  I have made a lot of mistakes, a lot.  It has been humbling.  It is hard to change, but I know I can do it; we can do it.  We can lean into our three-thousand-year-old legacy and take the next step forward.  Some of us have found the discipline to eat better, give up a dangerous habit, or keep a disciplined exercise routine.  No doubt, each of us can improve how we speak with one another. When this sermon is published on our website and on my Facebook page, I will also include a page of Jewish practices that have helped me.  I hope you will share your additional recommendations with me and those you know.

This process of reflecting upon our behavior and striving to advance is central to this ten-day High Holy Day season.

Keep Your Eye On The Ball

My friend Carolyn, once spent a lot of money on a tennis clinic with a world-class coach.  At the first lesson, the tennis pro said: “I’m going to tell you the secret to an exceptional tennis game.  Don’t focus on whether you have the best racquet.  Pay no attention to your outfit.  Don’t be distracted by your phone, your opponent or anything else around you; and this is the key,” he said: “keep your eye on the ball.”

Carolyn was incredulous. She knew to keep her eye on the ball; she had heard this advice all her life, she had said it a thousand times.  This is what she paid to hear: keep your eye on the ball?! And, as she participated in the clinic, this teaching was reinforced in every tip and in all the drills: keep your eye on that darn ball – and it worked.

So it can be for us.  We know how important it is to use our speech for good.  We have known this since we were small; we have said it to ourselves a thousand times.

And yet, it can be so easy to lose our way; to be distracted by a sharp email, a tweet; a hostile comment by a relative.  So easy to lose our cool in crisis; to respond too quickly without taking time to pause and collect our thoughts.

Rosh Hashanah is the time to focus on ourselves and our inner goodness; to recommit to being a mensch and to keep our eye on the ball of this timeless standard of our people.

When we take care with what we say and how we say it, I believe we can open doors that can change people’s lives forever.  We can reduce cycles of hatred and increase peace among our family, friends and neighbors.

And yes my friends, we can make history.
Let it begin with me.
Let it begin with you.
Let it begin with all of us.
Shanah Tovah.