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The Power of Responsibility of Speech – Holding others Accountable

08/01/2019 08:42:13 AM


Rabbi Ron Segal

There is a well-known adage from childhood I suspect most have heard: “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me.” We of course know the expression to be far from the truth, and in fact, it is the very opposite of what Jewish tradition teaches us concerning the power and significance of our words.

“Mavet v’chayim b’yad lashon – Death and life are in the hand (power) of the tongue,” states a verse in the book of Proverbs (18:21). Our oral tradition, known as the Talmud, seeks to clarify the verse’s meaning. “What could the verse mean when it says that ‘Death and life are in the “hand” of the tongue’? Does the tongue have a hand? No,” the rabbis continue to explain, “the verse intends to teach us that, just as a hand can kill, so too a tongue can kill, and not just those who are close by. It can also kill like an arrow that is fired from a bow at a great distance.” (BT Arakhin 15b)

In last week’s Torah portion, we read about a biblical character named Balaam (Bil’am), a non-Jewish prophet who was hired by the Moabite king to curse the Israelites. I will not recount the narrative this evening as the full story is not pertinent. Suffice it to say that, over the course of the story God clearly goes to great lengths to interfere with Balaam’s efforts to curse the Israelites. The question the rabbis ask is, “Why?” “Why does God care what Balaam says?” After all, they reason, Balaam’s words would only be efficacious if God so chose; otherwise they would not have mattered.

In a message he delivered to his congregation last week, Rabbi Barry Gelman responded to the rabbis’ logical question by citing 15th century Portuguese philosopher Isaac Abarbanel, whose wisdom continues to resonate powerfully and call out for our attention, particularly in the wake of the news cycle in our country over the past few weeks. Abarbanel contends that while it is indeed true that Balaam’s curse would have had no influence upon God, the problem lay in the fact that Balaam’s words would have had a profound influence upon the Israelites and the other nations, all of whom believed strongly in the efficacy and power of the spoken word. Balaam’s words had the power – not to evoke Divine action – but just as significantly, to change public opinion and perception. That, Abarbanel suggests, is why God was concerned enough to impede Balaam’s journey and ultimately to transform the words he uttered.  God understood – as do we – that it matters not whether words are true; they still have the capacity to influence people’s actions.

As we consider the new lows to which the level of discourse continues to sink in our country, this vital lesson from our tradition concerning the power and impact of words is as timely and important as ever. There is no question that I could discuss any number of individuals who are contributing to the current reality. Tonight, though, I want to speak about our President.

-    In our large and politically diverse congregation, there are unquestionably some who agree with the President’s approach to Foreign Policy, and others who do not.
-    There are many who applaud the President’s support of Israel, and others who are a bit more ambivalent.
-    Many celebrate the current state of our economy and agree with the President’s tough stance on Trade; others don’t.
-    And there are some who support the President’s approach to dealing with immigration, and many others who do not.

We can, we should, and we no doubt will continue to discuss and debate policies in other settings in the coming year leading up to elections. But whether one supports the President’s policies or not, whether one is a Republican or a Democrat, there is truly not one among us as Jews who should find acceptable the manner in which the President has repeatedly targeted and unleashed a torrent of hate against four US congresswomen over the past two weeks. As a minority people, how often has our people suffered from the destructive and murderous power of speech by those in positions of power and influence? Regardless of our political party, the fact that minorities are continuing to be singled out and vilified should make us shudder. Testament to the impact of hateful speech, the President’s continued focus on the “squad” has generated racist and ugly chants at rallies, in the Twittersphere, throughout the internet, and also countless death threats against the congresswomen necessitating greater security. That the words of an influential leader are yielding this result should chill every single one of us to the core.

Let me be clear. The fact that Rep. Omar’s and Rep. Tlaib’s positions and statements are laced with anti-Semitism and anti-Israel biases should arouse the ire of every single one of us as Jews, and we should strongly and unequivocally condemn their views and contest their positions. That however, is not the point of this message. I do not care if you are a Democrat, a Republican, or a Libertarian, vitriolic words that evoke widespread hatred of others, ultimately because they are minorities, are words that we as Jews simply should not and cannot tolerate. For tragically, we know too well that hateful speech by people in power turns into hateful and violent action in others. And friends, I will add that we are kidding ourselves if we think that the greatest spike in anti-Semitic behavior and hate crimes against Jews in our country in years is not closely tied to this current pattern of discourse. When any minorities are cast as “other,” Jews should have no doubt that we will be “othered” as well.

Quoting words from Talmud once again:
“In the West, they teach that ‘third speech’ (i.e. malicious speech about a third party) actually kills three people. It kills the one who speaks it. It kills the one who accepts the malicious speech when he/she hears it. And it kills the one about whom the malicious speech is said.” (BT Arakhin 15b)
“Flagrant and harmful words lead to violence and death,” the great sage Rashi further commented.

At the very least, malicious language degrades us. Left unchecked, hurtful speech diminishes our sense of right and wrong until it becomes commonplace and, even worse, acceptable. Let our children know and learn from us that, regardless of political affiliation, regardless of whether one supports particular policies, as Jews we have a moral responsibility to speak out when inappropriate, hateful, and hate-inducing language is used, especially by those in positions of power, for we have learned too often as a Jewish people that whenever minorities are targeted, we are as well… we are next. Speech can be used to instruct, to protest, to enlighten, to persuade, to command, to console, and clearly to chastise. But when speech is used to give life to hatred, then let us hold one another and our leaders accountable. Torah and Jewish tradition demand nothing less.

(Incorporated texts and sermon premise adapted from Rabbi Barry Gelman, United Orthodox Synagogues)

Wed, February 19 2020 24 Sh'vat 5780