“Can I have a word with you?”
What a misleading question! We all know that anyone who makes this request of us has more than “a word” to share. And it’s also a question that often raises our levels of anxiety. Is this “word” to be one of rebuke, or praise or love or accusation or forgiveness? Is it to be the “last word” in an on-going dialogue or the opening word to an entirely novel topic? But what is certain is that one word leads to the next and we soon find ourselves in conversation.
We Jews also approach God this time of year with that same question. “May I have a word with You?” Indeed, the words are many. Words of praise and words of penitence. Words which we may utter each year during the Yamim Noraim but which may assume different meanings each time we say them.
Words figure prominently in both the Torah and Haftarah portions we read this year on Shabbat Shuvah. Moses prays at the beginning of Parashat Ha’azinu that his words be heard: “Let the earth hear the utterings of my mouth.” His words are those of praise of God and yet another admonition to the people of both God’s love and the divine consequences of disobedience.
Words reflect another dimension at the beginning of the Haftarah of Shabbat Shuvah from the prophet Hosea. Hosea marries a prostitute, Gomer, and when she returns to her old ways, God nonetheless commands Hosea to take her back. The metaphor is obvious – Hosea’s forgiveness of Gomer’s unfaithful ways is but a mirror of God’s forgiveness of an unfaithful Jewish people.
And the vehicle for that forgiveness – words. “Take words with you and return to the Lord. Say to Him ‘Forgive all guilt and accept what is good; instead of bulls we will pay the offering of our lips.'”
Yes, in Hosea’s time our people brought offerings for forgiveness yet Hosea also suggests that offerings without the proper words are incomplete. The right words combined with the right action produce the right results.
The intense emphasis on the healing power of words on Shabbat Shuvah reminds us of the destructive potential of words. From the Torah’s rebuke of Miriam over slanderous words about Moses’ wife to the Chofetz Chayim’s work on gossip and evil speech (lashon harah), our tradition is replete with often-intense warnings about the power of words. In fact, evil speech is even compared to murder.
How appropriate is that Rabbinic understanding in our own times! New York State Senator Jeffrey Klein (D ““ Bronx, Westchester) has just proposed a law making cyber-bullying a felony; and if that cyber-bulling results in the death of the victim, that crime could be considered second degree manslaughter. Such a bill comes in response not just to the agony of victims of cyber-bullying but to the tragic suicides of young people harassed through the misuse of contemporary technologies.
In contemporary society, the misuse of the word is becoming a cultural norm, I fear.
Reality TV elevates “evil speech” to a whole new level, or shall I say, reduces humanity to a new low level.
If you can stand it, watch Judge Judy. Remember that all of these television court shows copy Judge Joseph Wapner, a man of deep humanity who even in this context of justice as entertainment brought a sense of reconciling disputes between people in honor and justice. Listen to the words with which Judge Judy humiliates, chastises, derides, mocks, and ridicules those who appear before her.
Ratings and ad revenues seem to rise on how evil one person can be to the next and how the target of those words can become the source of amusement of American audiences. Have you ever listened to the “judges” in any of those copy-cat talent shows Survivor or Big Brother or any other of those shows predicated on deceiving and ultimately ejecting other people from the game?
I think there is a very Jewish response with some very Jewish words and actions to the evils caused by hateful words. Support both legislation and policies which protect the bullied. Tell the networks and the advertisers that our Jewish laws and Jewish ethics do not countenance the humiliations of a Judge Judy or the plethora of mean-spirited reality shows. Say the words-and change the channel (and there are certainly enough other viewing options these days).
Perhaps we should translate the Hosea passage a bit creatively in the spirit of these Yamim Noraim-“Take with you the right words….” As we engage in this process of Cheshbon Hanefesh-self-accounting-let us strive to have a word not just with God but also a good word with our fellow human being. And if enough of us model that behavior to a world sorely in need of civility in discourse, then those right words will bring about the right outcome in our world.
Gmar Chatimah Tovah
May you all be sealed in the Book of Life for a year of health, happiness and prosperity.