Shabbat Evening Service
From the desk of Rabbi David Lyon
Words and things are different, but not in Hebrew. In Hebrew, “Devarim” means both words and things. The difference between them becomes clear only in context. The fact is that our Devarim (words) can be healing, compassionate, empathetic, and even politically correct when they are mindfully chosen. Every conversation between people, whether they’re spouses or strangers, deserves words that reflect the best in us and the potential we hope to find in relationship with others.
This past week, I was in the Dominican Republic for my son’s destination wedding. I speak very little Spanish, so I depended on basic Spanish vocabulary, simple English, and lots of appropriate hand gestures. Each word was mindfully chosen to create a shared experience where resort staff and I both accomplished what we needed. Courteous words, even in broken Spanish sentences, drew smiles and speedy assistance, too.You don’t have to travel far from home to use respectful words, but failing to do so in any language can be very harmful. Speaking above a person’s understanding just to gain control, or speaking offensively just to demonstrate power, disables the positive potential that can be found in any relationship and leaves everyone feeling unnecessarily insecure and fearful. In these cases, words become Devarim (things) or weapons that destroy rather than build up.
Used mindfully, words convey mutual respect even when they convey difficult messages. Used like weapons, they destroy both the user and the victim. That’s why there is a fuss made by mindful people to use politically correct words. It has nothing to do with sanitizing our language as if one’s mother was washing out her child’s mouth with soap. It has nothing to do with avoiding the truth, as if anyone isn’t completely aware of the meaning of a carefully crafted message. On the contrary, words that once suited us in the past also conveyed messages and made inferences about people and issues that we’ve long ago learned more about and grew to respect. So-called “Politically Correct” words match our contemporary sensibilities about race, sexuality, equality, and so much more. It’s in the power of these words that we express our willingness to grow our vocabulary and discover the power to be more fully human.
Don’t let anyone tell you that words don’t matter or that political correctness is diluting our nation’s values. Words and things can cut two ways, but they serve us best when they are words that cut the right way for the right reason. They should never cut through the soul of a human being because they hurt or burn with enmity or bigotry. In this campaign cycle and as Election Day nears, it might not occur to our candidates for president that “words matter” but they should matter to us. I hold myself, just as I hold you, to a high standard wherein our words are more than things; they are truly reflections of who we are as human beings who learn from Torah that Devarim find their source in Hebrew, our holy language.
Hebrew language is also known as Lashon Hakodesh, or Loyshen Koydesh, the holy tongue. Speaking words of Torah is akin to taking a precious item and treating it with great care and respect. To offend with words of Torah is to desecrate the entire scroll. The worst offense with words is called Lashon Hara, or the evil tongue. It still refers to gossip, hearsay and rumors. They’re most offensive because once they’re released by the tongue there’s no taking them back. The ripple effects are infinite and everything they touch causes harm. Jewish folk stories relate the role of the yenta who, by definition, spreads gossip and hearsay. She (it was most often a woman) breaches every confidence and commits the sin of lashon hara. Either scolded by the rabbi or avoided by the community, her offense bars her from regular social interactions. But, by definition she persists in her role as yenta; so, history has taught us to avoid her in our generation, too.
Our goal is to rise far and above the role of yenta in order to be persons of real value and substance. In the end, it’s about what we say and what our words say about us. Choose your Devarim well; build, love, and make peace with words.