The experimenter hands you some word problems and tells you to come and get her when you are finished. The word problems are easy: Just unscramble sets of five words and make sentences using four of them. For example, “they her bother see usually” becomes either “they usually see her” or “they usually bother her.” A few minutes later, when you have finished the test, you go out to the hallway as instructed. The experimenter is there, but she’s engaged in a conversation with someone and isn’t making eye contact with you. What do you suppose you’ll do? Well, if half the sentences you unscrambled contained words related to rudeness (such as bother, brazen, aggressively), you will probably interrupt the experimenter within a minute or two to say, “Hey, I’m finished. What should I do now?” But if you unscrambled sentences in which the rude words were swapped with words related to politeness (“they her respect see usually”), the odds are you’ll just sit there meekly and wait until the experimenter acknowledges you—ten minutes from now.
What do you think?
As we enter this day, this sacred day full of awe, I encourage us to look at the power of words in our lives… And I’m not alone. Certainly when we enter the vidui, the confession, shortly, we will be offered a menu of sins that relate to words out of our mouths. Here’s a sample:
For the sin that we have sinned before You …
…with the utterance of the lips
… through harsh speech
…with insincere confession
…through foolish speech
…through impure lips
…through denial and false promises
…through evil talk
… with the idle chatter of our lips
…through vain oath-taking.
(Yom Kippur confessional)
We are living in a very dangerous time right now.
When style—a calm voice—combined with denial and demonstrable lies is considered a win over somewhat unvarnished truth, we are living in a dangerous time.
When it is acceptable to incite people at rallies with “words related to rudeness” or violence, then we are living in dangerous times.
When retweeting messages from white supremacists who are equal opportunity haters, trolling Jews and people of color with equal ugliness, we are living in dangerous times.
When words that fat shame are called “entertainment”, or words that brag about sexual crimes are excused as “locker room talk,” then we live in dangerous times.
Right before Rosh Hashanah, I read an article by a therapist about Election Anxiety. People across the spectrum feeling great anxiety about the future of the country. But it was really an article about the use of tactics of emotional abuse: lying, denial, blame shifting, shaming, projecting…and several more. I know I’ve felt anxiety, but more because I feel that we are all walking away from Torah’s teachings of how to live with each other. Whereas we were at some point taught that kindness, love and being in relationship with each other and with what is holy were high priorities, now it feels like the genie of nastiness is out of the bottle or a volcano has erupted spewing the molten lava of anger and violence and vitriol. People are taking so many opportunities to say whatever they want, without caring about kindness, humility, peace, or indeed, character.
And yet, these times are not so different from other times. For example, the Talmud shares this story:
Once R. Eleazar son of R. Simeon was coming from the house of his teacher, and he was riding leisurely on his ass by the riverside and was feeling happy and elated because he had studied much Torah. There chanced to meet him a very ugly man who greeted him, “Peace be upon you, Sir.” R. Eleazar, however, did not return his salutation but instead spoke to him, “How ugly you are! Are all the citizens in your town as ugly as you are?” The man replied: “I do not know, but go and tell the Artisan who made me, ‘How ugly is the vessel which you have made.’” When R. Eleazar realized that he had done wrong he got down off the ass and threw himself to the ground before the man and offered, “I submit myself to you, forgive me.” The man replied: “I will not forgive you until you go to the Artisan who made me and tell him, ‘How ugly is the vessel which you have made.’” B. Taanit 20a
This story has resonated for me in so many ways: what did Rabbi Eleazar see in the man that was so ugly? Was he a different color? Too tall or short? Was he having a bad hair day? Did he have a horrible scar or acne or a disfigurement or disability?
Then, I wonder, what could prompt a person who had just studied some beautiful Torah to let such words fly out of his mouth? After all, studying Torah is supposed to refine our souls. Did R’ Eleazar not realize he was actually speaking? Was he in some altered state? Or just plain rude or biased?
Eleazar was instantly sorry, apologized and contrite, at least.
But those words were spoken. They couldn’t be unspoken. Even if he did as the man asked, and spoke directly to the Artisan who made him, those words would still hang in the air.
This whole topic—what damage we do with our mouths—is one of my own besetting sins. I have stories that I am too ashamed to share from a bima—or indeed almost anywhere outside a therapist’s office. I, like Reb Eleazar, always try to make amends as soon as possible, but the words are still out there. They can’t be unspoken.
We know that words hold great power:
Let there be light, the Eternal said, and there was light.
Now I pronounce you, and the couple is legally married.
I’m truly sorry. And something is healed.
It’s cancer, and a whole new journey begins.
It’s a girl… or it’s a boy… and new life begins, even if that declaration of gender is incorrect.
I’m listening… and a conversation can begin.
But now, with people letting loose with whatever they feel at the time, people are hurting each other. Two of my rabbi colleagues have been hurt by words recently, for sticking their necks out. One was live tweeting the Republican candidate’s speech on immigration (does everyone understand what live tweeting is?)—putting her comments in the context of Jewish sacred texts. Within minutes and for the next period of time, her twitter feed was filled with vile anti-Semitic words and images that I won’t repeat—comments about ovens, for example. She felt unsafe—so much so that her kids checked all her privacy settings to assure her home address and phone number don’t appear anywhere attached to her Twitter and FB accounts. She refused to be silenced. But how many of us would show that strength?
The second, a rabbi much beloved in his congregation, active in interfaith work throughout his community, a regular visitor to Israel, who studies there at least once a year and leads annual trips with his community, was trashed by a former congregant, because of a mistaken choice of stops in a draft itinerary. He became the object of articles, nasty emails, letters to funders and other Jewish organizations. Fortunately, his temple board supported him as did most of his congregants.
In both of these situations, a case could be made that a short lesson about the arguments of Hillel and Shammai might be useful… Do you know this story?
For three years there was a dispute between Beit Shammai, the school of Shammai, and Beit Hillel, each asserting, ‘The halakha is in agreement with our views.’ Then a bat kol (a heavenly voice) issued this statement: “Both these and these are the words of the living God, but the halakha is in agreement with the rulings of Beit Hillel.”
Since, however, both are ‘the words of the living God’ what was it that entitled Beit Hillel to have the halakha fixed in agreement with their rulings? Because they were kindly and modest, they studied their own rulings and those of Beit Shammai, and were even so [humble] as to mention the actions of Beth Shammai before their own. (B. Eruvin 13b)
How many of you knew this story?
The students of Hillel were kindly and modest and humble, they studied their own opinions and those of their opposition and then they described their opposition’s actions first. Kindly and modest and studious and polite.
How many of us do this now?
How many of us have been watching and hearing people speak such vitriol and invective? The calls to hatred, violence, religious discrimination, anti-Islam, anti-immigrant, racism, sexism, antisemitism, with lies flying fast and furious—all these diminish us. It has created an atmosphere of distrust, when people who might be kind and humble in their personal lives see no problem with striking out at someone different from them.
So what does Judaism say about this?
Maimonides, the 11th Century scholar, leader of his community and man of his millennium, described 5 types of speech.
(1) cautioned against and prohibited;
(4) prescribed; and
(1) …Prohibited and cautioned against: … bearing false witness, speaking falsehood, tale bearing, and cursing…; also, obscene speech and slander (lashon hara).
Goes without saying, yes? Don’t lie, don’t speak ill. Takes us back to the Big Ten. So many lies have been perpetrated lately, it’s hard to keep track. When we hear a lie too often—for example that our President was not born in the US, or that Jews have a conspiracy to take over the world, or Mexican immigrants are more likely to be criminals that native born Americans, some people begin to believe one or more of these lies.
And our tradition speaks strongly about the need to keep away from lies… because the more we do it with minor things, the more our souls get used to it as a way to be. And turning away from such habits is really hard.
This includes demeaning and degrading other people, by the way.
(2) Rejected speech: which has no benefit for a person for their soul – talks about the customs of kings (or celebrities), what used to be, how someone became rich, what the sages call “idle talk.”
Too often we idealize celebrity, and too often, celebrity for no good reason (the Kardashians vs. Malala Yousafzai, for example)—well, we could be using our limited time on this earth in a more productive way.
(3) Permitted speech concerning what specifically applies to a person — their business interest, livelihood, food, drink, clothing, and the rest of what they require.
We want to take care of ourselves and each other. I think this is the speech that encourages us to keep community together: what does Al need, given he’s just lost his mother? How can we support Suzanne with the loss of her sister-in-law? The person who just had a stroke? Do the people among us who need help get it? Let’s keep speaking about those issues, regularly.
(4) Prescribed: studying the Torah, teaching it, and studying Rabbinic teachings. This is …obligatory …
Think of this as studying to be close to what is holy, what is important, what makes us good, kind, modest, humble people. It could also mean reading books such as David Brooks’ The Road to Character, which seems like a Jewish text on Mussar, our centuries old psychospiritual practice. It means teaching our children how to behave with kindness and respect. And I think it means learning to give rebuke, what the torah refers to as tokekah, when necessary, so that we do not stand idly by the bloods of our neighbor, or people being bullied, fat-shamed, objectified.
(5) Desired speech: which is praise of intellectual or moral virtues and simultaneously denunciation of either of the two types of vices… extolling the virtues of good people so that people have role models for those virtues so that we might walk in their ways, and condemning those who lead us to violence and division and unkindness, so that humanity may condemn these behaviors.
Certainly this is so relevant at this moment.
We must always condemn those who preach or incite physical and emotional violence, who seek to divide us. We must use our words, our speech to point out both the positive and negative role models in our world. Hold up people like John Lewis or Malala or Thich Nhat Hanh or Rabbi Alan Lew of blessed memory or other, less well known people who are always fighting the good fight or are standing up for their community, while making sure we are aware of the danger demagogues pose to the health of our society. We must make sure that we recognize which is which.
When you think tonight and tomorrow about the words you use with your family, with your loved ones, with your co-workers or caregivers or teachers…are these words desired speech or rejected or prohibited speech? When you are thinking about who you want your leaders to be, do you pick someone who professes a predilection for sexual assault and lies regularly or someone else?
Think about what type of speech you want to spend most of your time on: desired or prohibited, prescribed or rejected? What would keep you from the prohibited or rejected and lead you toward desired or at least permitted…?
I’m going to close with a teaching by Rabbi Danny Siegel as a potential way forward:
If you always assume that the person sitting next to you is the Messiah, waiting for some simple human kindness, you will soon come to watch your hands and weigh your words. And if the Messiah then chooses not to show in your time, it will not matter.
May it be so.
[Gratitude to Rabbi Pam Wax for directing me to texts…and to my husband, Sam Doctors, for discussing and listening to me until I got it to this place, and Rabbi Birdie Becker for her editing of the politics.]
 Jonathan Haidt. The Happiness Hypothesis. 2006, pp. 13-14.
 Soncino translation with adaptation by author.