(Rosh Hashanah 5777, Day 2)
Over the past few weeks, we’ve begun using our new Shabbat prayerbook, Siddur Lev Shalem. The decision to acquire it was partly based on the very positive response you have had to the siddur’s older sibling, our new High Holidays machzor. When the book was released, there was a lot of discussion among rabbis about language – specifically, about the new siddur’s choice of words. For instance, you will not find the word “king” there in reference to God. Instead, it says “sovereign,” a somewhat more relate-able term.
The siddur also eliminates the word “awesome” as a translation for the Hebrew “no-ra.” Rabbi Ed Feld explains that a generation ago, the word connoted “wonder,” but nowadays, when things are so routinely called “awesome,” do we want the experience of praising God to be equated to the experience of drinking a milkshake? Well, maybe. But the point here is that we Jews take words very seriously.
Jews have been called the People of the Book, but in fact we are the People of the Word.
And words matter.
Rabbis love to talk about the foibles of their congregants in our private chat group. A rabbi from Maryland told of the Bar Mitzvah student who began his blessings with, “Baruch ata annoy.” God can be quite annoying sometimes. 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 lit his tallis on fire.” 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.
Yes, words matter.
There is an entire tractate of the Talmud that deals with the laws of vows and when they can be annulled, which is also the purpose of the Kol Nidre prayer. On Yom Kippur, before we get into any of that long list of sins, we pray to get our words right. And many of those sins we list are related to the misuse of words … gossip, slander, gratuitous levity, lies, sarcasm.
Tractate Avot states, “Emor Me’at v’aseh harbay.” “Say little and do much.” And for Jews, our actions should speak louder than our words. I always say at wedding ceremonies that Jews are great with words, but even better at deeds, so the ceremony ends not with words but with the breaking of the glass.
The story of Abraham, featured in our Torah reading on Rosh Hashanah, is filed with meaningful words – about people who didn’t talk all that much.
When guests arrive, Abraham doesn’t schmooze with them, he scurries around and engages his entire household in feeding them and making them comfortable.
Aviya Kushner, in her new book, “Grammar of God,” analyzes the lovely texture of the language of this chapter. When Sarah hears that she and Abraham are about to have a child, the text tells us, “Va’te’tzachek Sarah b’kirba.” “Sarah laughed deep inside.” This is just the second laugh of the entire Bible – and a justifiable response, given Sarah’s advanced age. So what is the meaning of this peculiar choice of words?
Commentators suggest that she suppressed the laugh so as not to embarrass Abraham, or, for that matter, God.
Kushner suggests that maybe Sarah was trying to suppress her own skepticism. She wanted to see how things would turn out. She put on hold part of her laugh, reserving her incredulity while holding on to a glimmer of hope – that maybe God was right, that maybe she could still have a child. And we, the readers of this story, suppress our laughs too, knowing that this is no laughing matter. Because if she couldn’t have a child, the Jewish nation itself would have been stillborn. Yet at a moment of such absurdity, faced with such overwhelmingly tragic odds – what’s a Jew to do? Why, laugh, of course!
Perhaps that internal laugh of Sarah’s was actually not just any old laugh. Perhaps it was Isaac himself, already embedded in her womb, whose name, after all, means laughter. Actually, Isaac’s name really means, “Will laugh.” It’s in the future tense. The laughter hasn’t happened yet.
To this day, we haven’t yet experienced the happy ending. To this day, our joy is embryonic. But still we laugh – a muffled laugh. So maybe that’s why it’s called an inside laugh. Tetzachek B’KIRBA. And when you think of Jewish humor, rarely does it evoke an LOL kind of response. (Or maybe it’s just my jokes). So often, we laugh through our tears.
We get all that from just a couple of words about Sarah’s muffled laughter.
Aren’t words beautiful?
This week, I’m focusing on the questions of authenticity, one of the most overused and least understood words in our vernacular, and in particular, what does it mean to live authentically as a Jew? Yesterday I mentioned that there is no exact translation for the term in Hebrew, but several synonyms that reflect different shadings. One of them is “mekori.”
“Makor” in Hebrew means “source.” To be authentic, we need always to be reconnecting to our roots, and there is no more authentic way Jews can do that than by reconnecting with our ancient language, a language that takes us back to the origins of all human communication.
Amos Oz, the great Israeli author, talks about the Jewish love affair with words, and in particular, Hebrew – a reimagined language for a reimagined people. You can see elements of this in the beautifully crafted new film about his childhood, directed by Natalie Portman, “A Tale of Love and Darkness.” In that film, and in his more recent book, called fittingly, “Jews and Words,” he writes of how the Hebrew word “Kadima” means forward, but the term “kedem,” also means “ancient times.” He writes, “When we speak Hebrew we literally stand in flow of time with our backs to the future and our faces toward the past.” That’s very different from the Western sense of a march of progress, which is inexorably forward thinking. Kadima is “a unique linguistic creature, progressive and at the same time progress-defying.”
It’s like the extraordinarily nuanced word, Shalom. My father used to sing the song, “Shalom” from the musical “Milk and Honey.” “And even when you say goodbye, say goodbye with a little “hello” in it, and say goodbye with Shalom.”
The word “shalom” enshrines the eternal Jewish quest for peace in every single greeting. It’s not “hello,” “goodbye,” or “peace.” It’s all three, something that gets lost in translation.
Language can be a barrier, but it can also be a gateway. And our new siddur, like the machzor, helps it to be the latter.
Words matter so much for Jews. Hebrew especially – it is part of what makes for authenticity in our tradition. That’s why we pray in Hebrew, despite the fact that it is hard for most American Jews to understand.
And Israelis understand Hebrew – which is why it’s harder for many of them to pray.
Sometimes knowing the literal meaning of words gets in the way of appreciating the finer textures of language.
Literalism in language can be a dangerous thing. Think of Amelia Bedelia, the star of Peggy Parish’s children’s book series. The joke, not lost on kids, was how she takes words so literally.
Amelia Bedelia, who planted light bulbs instead of flower bulbs, who made cheesecake by decorating blocks of cheese, who cut holes in Mrs. Roger’s dress when she was asked to “remove spots,” and who doused women with water from the gardening hose for her wedding shower.
Through her antics, kids learn early on that words matter. Some kids know that more instinctively.
I recently saw the superb Broadway version of the bestselling book, “The Curious Story of the Dog in Night Time,” about an exceptionally intelligent young man named Christopher who is ill equipped to interpret everyday life in the manner that many people do. Notice I didn’t say “normal,” people, because, who is to say who is normal in this world?
When, toward the end of the play, Christopher’s teacher is about to give him a test and says “let’s get rolling,” we are in his head – and when he gives a knowing glance to the audience, we know that he is one millisecond away from getting down on the floor and rolling over. When he sees a sign that says “Keep off the grass,” he asks the questions that few of us would even consider: Does it mean to keep off the grass just around this sign, or all the grass in this park? “Cause there’s a lot of grass!”
We hear often about our world being in crisis – and indeed we have much that should concern us. But not to discount anything else – terrorism is real .. gun violence, Zika virus, the hottest year on record yet again … all of these are very, very important.
But this also was not a good year for words.
We have devolved from reasoned, thinking creatures to knee-jerk, Pavlovian responders, and the level of our language has devolved as well. We no longer understand the difference between talking and talking points. We’re communicating in dog whistles and winks. We’re jumping all over verbal gaffes that were not intended. We giggle like school kids when someone’s hacked words get exposed for all to see. We take phrases out of context. We’ve all become Amelia Bedelias, but Amelia Bedelias with a nasty streak.
Last March, Carnegie Mellon released a readability analysis of presidential candidate speeches, assessing the grade level of vocabulary and grammar. Abraham Lincoln spoke with an 11th grade vocabulary. Both President Obama and President Bush used the vocabulary of a tenth grader.
This year, including the primaries, most candidates have been using words and grammar typical of students in grades 6-8, and in some cases, lower.
Hey, I’m all in favor of plain speaking, and I’d like to think I’m no elitist. This sermon itself is grammatically only a little north of 8th grade. I checked. But the dummying down of America cannot be a good thing for our democracy.
We’ve lowered the bar on language.
Back in the 1950s, Abraham Joshua Heschel memorably stated that the People of the Book have become the People of the Book of the Month Club. Well, it’s gotten much worse – and it’s not just for Jews. We’ve become the People of the Tweet, and the People of the Text. Words have become cheap.
Back in my college days, when we used these things called typewriters, if we made a mistake, we had to do the whole page over – or use this white liquid that supposedly covered the error, though no more effectively than Clearasil covers a pimple. The blemishes were there for all to see. So we had to think before we wrote – and spoke.
Now, while it’s true that every word we put online or send in an email is indeed there forever, we don’t take our words nearly as seriously. Consequently, we say the darndest things. And we forget how much words can hurt.
Exactly 25 years ago, on Rosh Hashanah 1991, I gave a sermon here on an interesting topic known as “Political Correctness.” As far as sermons go, it was one of my greatest hits.
I made some points back then that seem really off base now. I said then that the most PC thing around was the Cosby Show. Back then, it was a revelation, a show about a Black family succeeding in upper middle class life without the help of white benefactors.
Back in 1991, I joked about the Fresno Bee, a newspaper that programmed their computer to be so PC that when an article spoke about the Massachusetts budget crisis, it said that the state had put itself back in the “African American.” Back then, I speculated about whether it would be more correct to change the nursery rhyme to “Three Visually Challenged Mice.” Yes, there was a lot to question back then – and there is a lot to question now. Back then, as now, political correctness was seen as a tool of condescension, designed to ridicule and shame people into using more sensitive language. And back then, as now, to call someone P.C. was also a tool of humiliation and condescension.
Interestingly, another one of the synonyms for authenticity in Hebrew is “nachon,” which means correct. To be authentic, at least in Hebrew, is to be correct. Yet, being correct, at least in the PC sense, is suddenly something that no one wants to be, even on the left, where it is seen as being synonymous with intolerance of free speech. Everyone makes fun of political correctness.
I know all about Political Correctness. It was literally invented at my alma mater, in a 1980’s comic strip. And since then, Brown has perfected it, this past winter officially renaming Columbus Day as “Indigenous People’s Day.”
But my focus today is not on the politics of political correctness, but on the lack of honest communication in our society, and on the power of words to hurt or heal.
The end result is that dialogue becomes impossible because opposing sides can’t agree on a common vocabulary. And as result, you end up with people shouting past one another rather than engaging in dialogue. You end up with a need for safe spaces and time outs.
In 1991, we did not have social media, and people were not so easily silo-ed into their cable-news camps, so we had to find a common platform from which to scream at one another. Now we have our own echo chambers where we can insult the other side with impunity – and now we have anonymity of Twitter, where all the resentment can spew forth. The result has been a massacre of civil communication to an unprecedented degree.
The ADL has witnessed what it calls an “explosion of hate” online over the past couple of years and has been monitoring the recent spike on such harassment, which seems to have corresponded to the political season, with a large amount of this vitriol directed from the alt-right at journalists, particularly Jewish journalists.
And of course I know that this is not just about Jews and anti-Semitism, but Jews have always been the canary in the coalmine of hate and others are victims too. When I was growing up, the most un-PC person imaginable was fictitious; his name was Archie Bunker and we laughed at him. Now Archie has jumped out of out TV and become mainstream and it’s not funny anymore.
In some ways, things have improved. Back in the 1940s there was a popular comic book called “Little Moron,” and a whole genre of jokes that made fun of people who were intellectually disabled. Now it is considered wrong to use that term when referring to someone’s intelligence, or to use the dreaded “r” word.
I don’t care whether or not it is considered PC, but speaking as one with an intellectually challenged sibling, the “r” word hurts. Better to be more sensitive to our use of language, even if it means being inconvenienced.
One suggestion is to use “People first” language; if we use the term “people with intellectual disabilities,” we put our humanity first and consider the impairment only secondary, as a modifier. It’s the human being that matters.
What I want to know is, when did it become so sinful to be sensitive to the feelings of others? Sometimes sensitivity can be overdone. But a little sensitivity can soften the blow. I had an eye check up and asked if my vision was deteriorating. The doctor said my vision is “progressing” and that made me feel good, even though it meant that it was the deterioration that was progressing.
I guess that’s why when I was growing up and it was time to check my eyes, I always thought my parents were saying that we were going to visit the optimist.
Reframing words for sensitivity can be a good thing.
The rabbinic sage Avtalyon, warned his colleagues, “Be careful with your words – because you are modeling behavior for children. Indeed, as the cantor often sings, children do listen.
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 raised 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.”
So it’s not OK to let it all hang out. It’s not “authentic” to speak without a filter and spew whatever offensive thing is on your mind. If you are going to call me a dirty Jew or my brother a retard, those words are arrows – that’s what the Talmud says – much more harmful, in their own way, than sticks and stones.
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. Recite fourteen words 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.
To be authentic – Jewishly authentic – means to get beyond the rhetoric, to shun knee jerk responses and clichés, and (to use a cliché), to get ourselves to think outside the box. A study last month shared the news that even dogs, the ones who respond best to dog whistles, the ones who are by nature Pavlovian, even dogs have a place in their brain that treasures language. All the more so, should we.
Another translation for “authentic” in Hebrew is “samooch.” Connected. The letter samech in Hebrew is perfectly connected. A circle, without holes. As authentic Jews, we are called upon to use language to create connections, to forge real relationships.
Sherry Turkle writes in her book, “Reclaiming Conversation: the Power of Talk in a Digital Age,” that instead of promoting the value of authenticity, social media encourages performance over teaching the rewards of vulnerability; it suggests that you put on your best face.
To forge authentic relationships, then, we need to – at least some of the time – put our phones down, stash our emojis in the virtual drawer and set aside our texting shorthand, and try some face to face, real live conversation.
I mentioned that Sarah’s laugh was the second laugh in the entire Bible. That’s because one chapter earlier, Abraham also laughed, when God told him that he and Sarah would have a child. “Vayipol Avraham al panav va’yitzchak.” He didn’t just laugh, he fell on his face and laughed. Emmanual Levinas wrote that the presence of a face initiates the human ethical compact. An authentic response is one that is full-faced. An authentic relationship is one that is face to face. And in his relationship with Isaac, only at the end of the Akeda story does Abraham lift up his eyes. Only then does he fully engage in authentic, face-to-face relationship. Only then can he save his son.
We need for our words to be as full faced, as authentic a response, as our laughter and our tears.
Imgine the Akeda with cellphones. We regularly put people on pause while we check our phones. As Turkle indicates, we have now begun to treat people like machines. We regularly put people on pause while we check our phones. We have now begun to treat people like machines. “Sorry, Isaac, I have to check my texts.” When we pick up our phones, we are actually clicking the pause button on the real live people who are in the room with us.
Exactly twenty years ago, five years after the PC sermon, in another greatest hit sermon I gave here about words, I challenged the congregation to go from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, just a little over a week, without using bad language – lashon ha ra. No gossip, no slander, no vitriol, no flaming, no trolling, no mic dropping – watching every word – and aiming to say only words that heal – just for a week.
That exercise changed lives – and people remember it to this day.
Twenty later, in this crazy, feverish, frenzied October, it’s time to try that again. From now until Yom Kippur, let’s try to be nice, online and in person. It may not change the world in these troubled times, but it might change us – which might, ultimately, have an impact on the world.
Try to be more conscious of what you say and how you say it, or write it. Feel free to share your experiences.
Let’s change the world by changing ourselves. Let’s make this the most PC place on the planet – by that I mean Perfectly Civilized.
This weekend, on Shabbat Shuvah, we’ll read the immortal words of the prophet Hosea, “K’Chu Imachem Devarim V’Shuvu El Andonai.”
“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’s aim in our use of language to be Jewishly authentic: Mekori, Nachon and Samooch – to reflect, correct and connect. Let us aim higher than ever before in how we speak. Let us aim for nothing less than perfection. Let only words of healing, love and sanctity flow from our lips.