A wise man once said that “words create worlds; the conversations we have with ourselves and with others create the world within which we and they live.” This world can be Heavenly Kingdom or it can be the archetypal hell. Our recent Torah portion Ki Tavo spoke of blessings and curses. Perhaps the blessings represent a world created from our words of love and hope, and the curses represent a world created from our words of mistrust and fear. In fact, there are some who say that all words of anger come from fear – the curses spoke of in the Torah.
Violence can be incited by violent speech. Throughout history, unethical or demonizing speech incited war and genocide. When Jews were demonized and made the scape goat for Germany’s humiliating WWI defeat and the woeful German economic conditions, it became easy for the methodical Holocaust to unfold across Europe.
Demonizing speech of people on the margins or making people “the Other” is classic projection. Rather than taking responsibility for our own fears, insecurities, failures, feelings inadequacy or just envy, we repress these and then project them onto the Other. Lacking the courage to face our own demons, we then progressively bully our target of projection until we can metaphorically or physically kill them off. When still left with the same repressed fears and self hatred, we find another “Other” and project onto them. Many minorities are the target of projected self-hatred and Jews, more than a Chosen People, have been the ‘Chosen Other’ too often these past 2,000 years.
Nowhere is this more true than in politics – not just American politics – all politics. Long gone are times when politicians of all stripes debated issues and philosophies, sharing their views on how to address the issues. Now we are left with personal character attacks in order to demonize the political opponent.
Throughout the world, people are killed in the campaigning leading up to elections and in this county, polarization caused by demonizing politics is at an all-time high. It doesn’t matter who you support – your favored candidate will personally attack their opponent because sadly, polls show that it works. No matter who is in power, the losing party will exist only to oppose those in power. The demonization of the other and the personal attacks can lead to real violence and must stop, and we must all start with ourselves.
Sharing our personal opinions in a respectful and non-hurtful way is encouraged by Jewish Law. Lev 19:17 says to “rebuke your neighbor, but do not bear guilt in doing so.” Offering constructive criticism that supports another’s becoming aware of what “they don’t know that they don’t know” about their behavior is commanded. However, sharing our opinions as an attack, a make-wrong, or from a place that anyone who believes differently than us is bad might be misconstrued by some as Freedom of Speech. However, it is wrong and a violation of what Judaism commands. Hurting others with our feedback or opinions is bearing guilt in rebuking our neighbor and is forbidden. On a relational level, it breaks the bonds of friendship and can alienate us from the others to whom we need connection.
Earl Schwartz, in his book, Moral Development: A Practical Guide for Jewish Teachers, cites an old Jewish saying, which compares the tongue to an arrow. “Why not a sword?”, one Rabbi asked. The other Rabbi responded, “because if a person in a rage takes out a knife to kill someone and the intended victim pleads for his or her life and begs for mercy, and then the one raging has a change of heart, he or she can put the knife away.” The second Rabbi added, “ Not so with an arrow. Once the arrow is shot at the victim, no matter how much the shooter wants to make the arrow stop or take back the serious or mortal wound – they cannot.” Our words are like the arrow. Once we speak hurtful words, it is too late to stop the wounded heart from hurting. In fact, some Jewish teachings compare cruel words to murder. Solomon Ibn Gabriel, in his book Pearls of Wisdom, wrote “I can retract in my mind what I did not say; however, I can never retract what I already said.”
A woman shared with me that when she was a little girl, her mother often called her a “crybaby” . She grew up always feeling like a disappointment to her mother. It wasn’t until she was an adult that she realized that she did matter and that she was not insignificant. A friend told me that she overheard her parents call her lazy. After hearing her parent’s criticism, this made her want to do everything perfectly, like some kind of superhuman. No matter what she continues to do, she can still sometimes hear that little critic in her mind saying that she is lazy. Another shared with me the hurt they felt by being criticized for the number of children she brought into the world. For all three of these examples, some of you right now may be saying to yourselves, “Oh, that was not so bad.” To them, hearing the criticism or put-downs was like being shot with an arrow. Who are we to judge what hurts another?
What about things said about others when they are not present, such as gossip? In the book Orhot Tzaddikim, The Ways of the Righteous, the text addresses Lashon Hara- (gossip, the evil tongue) in the following way: “ A gossip always seeks out the faults of people; he is like the flies who always rest on filth. Thus is the way of gossip – he overlooks all the good in man and speaks only of the evil.” In the book of Ecclesiastes, 19:10, the text implores us to retrain ourselves with regard to spreading malicious gossip, “Have you heard something? Let it die with you. Be strong; it will not burst you.” A Talmudic parable about leshon hara: “In the future all the world’s animals will come together and confront the snake. They will say, ‘the lion stalks and eats her prey; the wolf chases in packs and then eats its prey. You snake – what is your pleasure in poisoning and killing human beings that you cannot eat? The snake answered, “and what pleasure do human beings derive in spreading poison as malicious gossip (which kills others)? Think of the gay student at Rutgers whose room-mate posted a video of him kissing another male student. The humiliated gay student felt so exposed and vulnerable that he jumped from the George Washington bridge to his death.
Many are held to higher standards, realistically in some cases and unrealistically in other cases. By particularly focusing on the wrong choices made by clergy or others held to a high moral or ethical standard, it might allow us to feel even more free to do immoral or unethical acts. After all, if a Rabbi, a priest, a judge, a therapist or a spiritual director of any faith gets divorced because of their illicit affair with a coworker, we seem to harshly judge them while we are driving to meet our own illicit lover.
Let’s face it, we all gossip – certainly me, too. Therefore if we all gossip, is there a way to contain it rather than get beaten up over it? How about limiting it to just a couple of people instead of being a yenta – the town crier? How about saying something also positive about the person? When sharing something negative about someone, how about only sharing the facts about what you know. According to the Talmud, if you exaggerate, then you are guilty of shedding blood, so it would be more preferable to say nothing or only what you know.
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin in his book, Word that Hurt; Words that Heal, references the Torah. He noted that Lev 19:16 states “you shall not go about as a talebearer among your people.” This comes just two verses before Lev 19:18, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Too many people are brought down by acts for which they have repented and never repeated. What value is there to discredit a recovering alcoholic? A person who served time in jail for a prior crime? I know a Cantor in upstate New York who served time for embezzlement many years ago. He admitted his crime, which he blamed on no one but his young and selfish self. He did his time and then came out to teach children in public school, until he retired. An accomplished piano and guitar player and song writer, he was also a friend of Bob Dylan in the very early 1960s. He made many contributions to the Civil rights movement and served many people with his wise counsel. Yet, there are people who would certainly bring up his one criminal act over 45 years ago to discredit him if he ran for a political office. He made his mistake, served his consequence and moved on with life. How many of us suffer having to deal with our past indiscretions for which we made our peace and paid the consequences because others cannot let them go or use them to take us down?
A friend of mine and a retired psychotherapist shared with me that as she was leaving to go to her first school dance, her father said, “you look OK, but never as beautiful as your mother.” She has carried this would all her life – simply because she recalled it so easily when she learned about what I was going to speak about today.
Our words create worlds. The conversations we have with ourselves and with others create the world within which we and they live. This world can be Heavenly Kingdom or it can be the archetypal hell. We can create a hurtful world or we can create a world where everyone around us feels understood and valued. This is not a world where we all agree on everything. That is utopian and unrealistic. However, let us move forward sharing our opinions as simple views that we hold that are only different from another, not wrong and not right.
By all means, let us be very careful about what we tell our children. Take the example of a now grown man who was called a “coward” by his father when he quit his high school football team. His father never gave him the chance to explain that he quit because the coach started teaching the linemen how to hit opponent’s knees to injure them. Years later and after much soul-searching around feelings of inadequacy, the man asked his older father why he called him a coward. The father explained, “I was afraid that you would start quitting things when they got challenging.” You see, the father’s own father was an alcoholic and the father’s way of dealing with his wound was, ”never quit and never be irresponsible.” From a place of valid concern for his son, the father had released an unintended arrow with just two words: “you coward.”
Let us all – starting with me – take responsibility when we say hurtful things and clean up our messes. Let’s think twice before supporting people or politicians who rely on –personal attack and firing arrows. Let’s work to ignore the mind chatter that tries to tell us that we are inadequate so that we don’t take it out on others. This new year, let us speak words of support, kindness, valid concern, constructive criticism and most importantly acceptance and understanding. We are all here for a reason – to love and connect with others.