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Recently, I spoke to a woman in the hospital for hip surgery that she had delayed for three weeks after her fall. After talking about that, she told me bits and pieces of her life, including her first, unhappy marriage. A few years after the marriage ended, at one of their monthly lunches where she collected his child support check, her ex told her that he had never loved her. I expressed some form of dismay on her behalf. She, however, had a different reaction: she revealed to me that it was the best thing he could have told her. “I stopped trying to blame myself, to figure out what I’d done wrong, what my problem was. I could finally stop trying to get him back, because I’d never had him. I was finally able to move on.” And a few years later she married her husband of now 45 years, of which marriage she noted, “It is long, but not long enough.”
Words change reality. Words matter.
I officiate weddings on a pretty regular basis—it’s one of my favorite parts of being a rabbi. During the second half of the ceremony, comprised of the sheva berakhot, the 7 blessings, I explain them this way: the number 7 represents spiritual perfection and we say blessings because we know that words change reality, and we are changing these two individuals into one couple.
What we say matters. Not a surprising or even controversial concept, is it?
This past year, during this much too long election cycle, we have heard so many words that could change reality for the good or the bad. And so many of the words are either false (according to the Pulitzer Prize winning website Politifact) or wrong or damaging to our national reputation, safety and soul. And yet some of us have become so inured to the onslaught that we can barely register what is happening or discover a way to understand it.
My natural anxiety level has risen dramatically as I try to understand what all these words mean. And I’ve noticed in my rounds as hospital chaplain both here and the East Bay, that I am by no means alone in feeling this anxiety. Patients, rather than talk about their own health and healing, have begun to speak of their fear for our country, or their concern that there is so much animus in the air around us.
And I suspect some of you share this with us.
As I listened to these souls in hospital gowns this week, I thought of our double torah portion Matot-Maasei, the last two portions in the fourth book of the Torah, Bemidbar, or Numbers.
Our Israelite ancestors stood near the Promised Land, so ready to enter. They divvied up the land for each tribe. But before the final preparations, God gave Moses yet another set of rules for the Israelites to obey–about the words out of each person’s mouth. We became obligated to honor the promises we make, the vows we take, the declarations we utter.
Before the Israelites could embark on the liberation of the land, we had to be sure we understood that the words out of our mouths matter. That what we say we do, we do. How else will we be able to trust each other in those important moments?
These seem to build on the commandment “Thou shalt not lie,” giving us rules to understand the breadth of the obligation.
Rashi, the 11th Century commentator, discussed the phrase ‘he shall not desecrate his word’, reminding us that our words are holy—or should be. Sacred relationships–between humans and the divine and between people–develop through honesty and trust. Words promised and promises fulfilled help build trust, restore faith, and ultimately seal these sacred relationships. Broken words, on the other hand, lead to broken trust, which can ultimately lead to an end to the relationship itself.
Certainly, what is true on a personal level is also true on a national level. When a candidate for high office derides entire groups of people—whether women, Latinos, people with disabilities, Muslims, Gold Star families; or promises to build an impossible wall; or to deport millions of people who do the work most of us have no desire to do, but still want done—what do those words do to the rest of us? What do they do to the sacred trust that our founders spoke of at the end of the Declaration of Independence—about pledging their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to form our country?
I study Mussar, the Jewish psychospiritual practice that offers the opportunity to bring our character traits into ethical balance. Words are such an essential part of that, and each week, as we study texts and ideas, I find that the political landscape offers us negative role models—those ones for how NOT to be in the world.
David Brooks, a New York Times columnist, who is also a student of Mussar, noted recently, that when we live in a time or listen to people from whom facts are “unmoored”, as he calls it, “[p]eople who value humility and kindness in private life abandon those traits when they select leaders in the common sphere.” What I hear him trying to say is that when declarations, vows and promises hold no meaning, then people who in their personal lives value kindness and humility are frightened into abandoning those values for their own imagined safety. They are willing to abandon values for safety, which seems antithetical to faith and to our belief in each other as a country.
The wall is not going to be built, not all (or most) Muslims are terrorists, and Mexican immigrants as a group are more law abiding than US citizens as a whole. I could go on with this list, but the part I find most discouraging is the degradation of the discourse in the country, where each day I am shocked that such words–words that should be holy–could have been unchallenged in the media.
But this coarsening of our discourse has such profound effects on how we are with each other. If Presidential candidates can discuss their genitalia at a nationally televised debate that our children watch as part of their civics education, where do we go from there as a society?
Deepak Chopra shared an essay in which he discussed how this election has unleashed our shadow side—that part of ourselves that we try to hide, where our dark impulses reside—selfishness, jealousy, resentment, hatred. What depth psychology and Carl Jung call the shadow, we Jews have always called the yetzer hara, the evil inclination.
Chopra argues that civilization depends on our ability to obey our conscious mind—our sense of what’s right, and suppress our yetzer hara. When we don’t—well, there is evidence of that all around us. You can’t push the shadow or our collective yetzer hara back into the background—it has to be confronted. But he points out, as do many of our teachers, that you can’t fight the yetzer directly, and certainly not with the shadow. We need to do some version of what Michelle Obama described recently, “When they go low, we go high.” You can’t fight the bully by stooping to his level. You have to keep trying to right the wrong, “reinforce the value of returning to right and reason.”
Words matter. They, according to the opening chapter of the Torah, are what brought the universe into existence. “Let there be light,” the Holy One said, and there was. And it was good. Let all our words be for the good. Otherwise, our anxieties grow.
In closing, my teacher, Rabbi Haim Ovadia, noted in his daily email today, that this parasha also recounts the journey we took through the wilderness. It identifies 42 stops on our way, many of which surely have some spiritual significance. The one he drew my attention to is in Numbers 33:25, where we read
וַיִּסְע֖וּ מֵֽחֲרָדָ֑ה וַֽיַּֽחֲנ֖וּ בְּמַקְהֵלֹֽת:
Charadah is anxiety or terror. Makhailot means choir or community. At some point, we must move from anxiety and what better way to do it by through singing together and coming together in community. May we choose our words wisely, lift our discourse and always remember that our words matter.