Words Matter

Words of hate inevitably result in acts of hate. We are witnessing it right now!

Words have the power to harm and the power to heal.

The words we are hearing with more and more frequency these days give rise to serious concern –for they possess the power to hurt. Racial and religious profiling and stereotyping breed distrust. Violent speech results in violent acts. This morning I want to lift up how history teaches this truth and use our Torah portion and some recent moments to teach the healing potential that words possess.

We live in a time when the level of intolerance has grown. Words of hatred and bigotry have become commonplace. When we hear rhetoric that labels all Muslims as potential terrorists, and suggestions to prohibit any Muslim from entering into the United States responded to with applause – those words hurt. The Jewish community in general and CBJ community in particular must be clear that we reject bigotry and intolerance; and that while the fighting terrorism that requires strong response – we take care to avoid the racism that often accompanies that fight and which is becoming all too common.

SUNY Stony Brook Professor Sara Lipton connects words and deeds in a New York Times article analyzing the surge of anti-Jewish violence in the beginning of the 12th Century. It is an important historic time to study because there was a surge in anti-Jewish violence. Up until this time – for almost 1,000 years, while “the Jews” were seen as responsible for the death of Jesus – there was no consistent pattern of anti-Jewish violence and only scattered records of anti-Jewish episodes like forced conversions.

What happened that changed things? Professor Liption argues that it was the power of words that changed everything. In the decades around 1100, in an effort to spur compassion among Christian worshipers, preachers and artists began to dwell in vivid detail on Jesus’s pain. Jesus morphed from triumphant divine judge to suffering human savior. A parallel tactic, designed to foster a sense of unity, emphasized the cruelty of his supposed Jewish tormentors. Things began to shift. Artwork changed – before this time the Roman soldiers were portrayed at Jesus’ executions, now the Jews were the perpetrators.

This identification with this newly vulnerable Jesus, who suffered at the hands of the Jews, coupled with Turkish military successes, creating a sense of vulnerability. Combined with an internal reform movement questioning fundamentals of faith, centuries of behavior changed.   Ferocious anti-Jewish rhetoric began to permeate sermons, plays and polemical texts. Jews were labeled demonic and greedy, portrayed as animals and beasts. Images began to portray Jews as hook-nosed caricatures of evil.

With these hateful words, we witness the first records of large-scale anti-Jewish violence. The first victims of the Crusades were Jewish, and we read accounts of Crusaders reasoning that they should attack the Jews, who killed and crucified Jesus – on their way to liberate the Holy Land from the Turks. Massacres occurred in towns where Jews had peacefully resided for generations. The pattern deepened – as hateful words, sermons and caricatures resulted in violence.

Words of hate inevitably result in acts of hate. We are witnessing it right now! Violence against Muslims and mosques are an outgrowth of the rhetoric of the times in which we live. Mosques, Muslim institutions and Muslims are being attacked – and it is an affront to who we are as Americans and Jews. The rhetoric of these times incites “othering.” Loyal Americans are being treated as a fifth column – and it could not be further from the truth. Voice after voice in the Muslim community rejects jihadist violence. Yet, the local Muslim community reports that women wearing hijab or burka have been threatened and attacked. It is real and is happening right here.

Judah’s brilliant speech in out Torah portion teaches a different way.  His words heal, and his rhetoric is brilliant. The commentator Nechama Leibowitz notes that Judah uses the word “father” 14 times in 17 verses, creating a human connection with Joseph. His willingness to take his brother’s place shows a selfless ability to understand the pain of another – in this case his father. His ability to understand the pain of others – a trait he lacked as a younger man, coupled with conveying loyalty to family and creating human connection – open the door to reconciliation, forgiveness and renewed connection. Judah’s words bring healing.

We can be the people who bring healing at this vulnerable moment in our country’s history. We can create a human connection that lifts up the pain of another and transcend hateful rhetoric. Smalls acts change everything. It was not widely reported, but there was an extraordinary moment at a recent football game. Two days after the terrible attacks by jihadist terrorists killed 129 people in Paris there was a moment of silence at many football stadiums for the victims. At the Green Bay Packers game, one fan yelled an anti-Muslim slur during the silence that quarterback Aaron Rodgers heard. Listen to what he said after the game:  “I think it’s important to do things like [the moment of silence]. We’re a connected world, you know — six degrees of separation.  I must admit, though, I was very disappointed with whoever the fan was who made a comment that I thought was really inappropriate, during the moment of silence. It’s that kind of prejudicial ideology that I think puts us in the position that we’re in today, as a world.” That simple statement reminds us of the difference that comes when you stand up for what is right. We need to follow Aaron Rodger’s example.

Joseph is another example in our portion of using words to heal. After he reveals himself to his brothers, he knows that they will worry that he will kill them for what they did to him.  Look at his response: “Now don’t be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you.”

I have often puzzled over the theology of this verse. Did God really cause something terrible to happen in order to bring about a greater good?  What does that say about God, or our freedom?  But maybe the verse isn’t about God at all. Maybe Joseph uses theology in order to find a way to help his brothers’ live with themselves and overcome fear. This section is about the power of words to initiate healing. Joseph reframes the past to create a different future.

His words allow his brothers to see the world in a different way. Can we use our words in such a way?  Listen to the posting of British soldier, Chris Herbert, who lost a leg serving in Iraq. He responded to those who expected recent terrorism to elicit anti-Muslim sentiments. He writes: Yes, a Muslim caused me to lose my leg. A Muslim man also lost his arm that day wearing a British Uniform.
A Muslim medic was in the helicopter that took me from the field.
A Muslim surgeon performed the surgery that saved my life.
A Muslim nurse was part of the team that helped me when I returned to the UK.
A Muslim healthcare assistant was part of the team that sorted out my day to day needs in rehabilitation when I was learning to walk.
A Muslim taxi driver gave me a free ride the first time I went for a beer with my Dad after I came home.
A Muslim doctor offered my Dad comfort and advice in a pub, when he didn’t know how to deal with my medicines and side effects.”

Like Chris Herbert and Joseph, we too can help reframe the hurt and anguish we are witnessing and open doors to healing.

Joseph is the great reframer. After his father dies, his brothers worry that he will now seek his revenge: “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as He is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.”

Joseph had reframed his entire past. He no longer saw himself as a man wronged by his brothers. He had come to see himself as a man charged with a life-saving mission by God. Everything that had happened to him was necessary so that he could save an entire region from starvation during famine, and provide a safe haven for his family.

We have an opportunity to reframe the hatred spewing at this moment by creating connections to Muslims who are not terrorists and do not support terrorism.

Our words and deeds can bring light. Let me conclude with a beautiful prayer of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav from the book, The Gentle Weapon, which drives this home.

O God, Help me avoid

every abuse of speech.

Let no untrue word escape my lips.

I pray that I never

Speak badly of others,

or speak empty words of flattery.

Teach me, dear God, when to keep silent

And when to speak;

And when I speak O God,

save me from using

Your wonderful gift of speech

to humiliate or hurt anyone.