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The Power of Words

05/27/2021 09:14:03 AM


Rabbi Sam Trief

This past week, as antisemitism has reached a near fever pitch, I have found myself thinking a lot about stereotypes, biases, and labels. As criticism of Israel rapidly descends into criticism of the Jewish People, we have seen age-old stereotypes of hatred and ignorance simmer above the surface. This week, as we contemplate this scary and yet all-too-familiar wilderness, we also find ourselves deep in a different wilderness, in the Book of Numbers. It is here, In this parsha, Behalotecha, that we encounter one of these stereotypes, one that often we talk about amongst ourselves. Why do Jews complain so much? What are you kvetching about this time? We even have this unique, descriptive Yiddish word to embody this seemingly unique, Jewish phenomenon. 

A few moments into the Israelites journey through the wilderness, right after God delivers them from Egypt with an outstretched arm, what do they do to show their gratitude? That’s right; they start complaining about EVERYTHING. First they complain about the length of their journey. Then they complain about  the meal plan, begging for meat instead of manna.  The Israelite whining is so intense, that Moses turns to God, exasperated, unsure of how to handle it. Thousands of years later, we continue talking about this stereotype with these same words of complaining and kvetching. As if there is more truth to this for the Jewish People than for any other People. As if it were not a universal, human condition that people would complain if made to wander through the desert with very little food and water.  

As we look at recent weeks, we see the power of words take on new meaning. Apart from the actual fighting taking place in Israel and the Palestinian territories, another front in the war surfaced with ferocious fighting; social media, full of soundbites and posts accusing Israel of the  most heinous of crimes. These vicious words quickly devolved into vicious acts of antisemitism; violence, harassment, vandalism and other manifestations of the world’s oldest hatred here in our own country. 

As we fight antisemitism externally, I invite us to contemplate the stereotypes about ourselves and others that we perpetuate. How do we use our words to intentionally or inadvertently cause harm to ourselves and others? Judaism teaches that we should create a world within ourselves that we would like reflected externally as well. 

Perhaps if we pay close attention to the words we use, we can help create a world worthy of peace and humanity. How do we serve as ambassadors for the Jewish People to the outside world, many of whom have not had much interaction with us? How do we serve as ambassadors to our own People? I say this, even as we demand accountability and refuse to tolerate the disease of antisemitism. Even as we demand increased awareness of antisemitism and as we stay vigilant to its ever-changing manifestations.

During this alarming spike in antisemitism, the best way we can respond is with our words and with our voice, infused with education and truth. Shabbat comes around each week to remind us to relax, reflect on the past week, and to always measure our words. Together, through our words and our stories, we can begin to create a world that is free from hatred and safe for all. 

Shabbat Shalom 

Wed, December 1 2021 27 Kislev 5782