Oftentimes the simplest things are the best. Sometimes they are the most important, too.
Take for example this week’s Torah portion which begins the last of the five books of the Torah. The world calls this book “Deuteronomy” which we can sort of understand from its Latin and Greek roots: deuteros meaning “second” (as in the number, sequence) and nomos, meaning “law”. The title “Deuteronomy” suggests that this book is about the 2nd presentation of the Torah as law. Indeed, among many other things, Deuteronomy contains Moses’ retelling of all that has come before. However it is told with elaborations, nuances, and many other details that make it more than a mere repeat.
The original title is of course in Hebrew. We use the first major word of the book, in this case “Devarim”, for the title. The book begins Elu haDevarim… “These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel”. Thus, the entire book is referred to as “Words” in Hebrew, Devarim.
Could the name for this book – “Words” – be any more humble and non-descript than that?!
And yet… Proverbs (18:21) teaches us:
מָ֣וֶת וְ֭חַיִּים בְּיַד־לָשׁ֑וֹן
Death and life are in the power of the tongue
Our words are powerful. Words were used by God to create the world. We use our words similarly to convey ideas, express our emotions, to begin the transformation of a thought into a concrete action or object in the world – to get things done. With use of words comes tremendous responsibility.
The wise man Ecclesiastes (that is, Kohelet, which many assume to be a pseudonym for King Solomon) said, “Gentle words of the wise are heard (Kohelet 9:17). Yet we are also taught: “a harsh word stirs up anger. (Proverbs 15:1)”. My colleague Rabbi Jonathan Gewirtz reminds us, “Words should not be confused with weapons – words are much more powerful.”
The importance of words cannot possibly be lost on us this weekend and in the week to come:
Saturday night and Sunday day is Tisha B’Av, the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av. It is a day of profound mourning for a long list of disasters that have befallen the Jewish People (and the world for that matter) on this most inauspicious date. One such calamity, the destruction of the second Temple by the Roman legions, was caused by “causeless hatred” of fellow Jews towards one another. You can bet that the hatred began with…words. Of course.
A case in point:
This coming Thursday on August 12 marks the 5th anniversary of the Neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville. I think all of us Americans feel a grave sense of violation from that event. On a personal level, I still get nauseous thinking about those torch-bearing Nazis chanting “Jews will not replace us” while they marched around the statue of Thomas Jefferson in front of the University of Virginia’s Rotunda building. I purposely sat often at the feet of that statue as an undergrad during my time at UVa. I sat there to read Emil Fackenheim’s To Mend the World, which insists we – the whole world – hear from Auschwitz a commanding Voice, just as we heard God’s Commandments at Sinai. That commanding Voice from Auschwitz says “It is forbidden to give Hitler any posthumous victories.”
Words and violence are what make those white supremacists into the Nazis that they are. They have killed more than a hundred people since Charlottesville. I for one cannot forgive or forget that there were those in leadership positions whose words gave Hitler a posthumous victory that day, whose words equivocated on condemning the Nazis five years ago: Death and life are in the power of the tongue.
But the final word is not with hatred, violence and death. The final word is with LOVE:
This next week that starts with Tisha B’Av and continues through the anniversary of Charlottesville ends with Tu B’Av next Friday, the 15th day of the month of Av. Tu B’Av is ‘the Jewish Valentine’s Day’. Tu B’Av celebrates love as the antidote to hatred; Tu B’Av notes that the destruction wrought by causeless hatred has a tikkun – a way to begin to fix the damage…which is through causeless love; Tu B’Av is a day for transforming the passion kindled through hateful words by reminding us how it feels to love others with heartfelt passion, to love with our whole souls. Tu B’Av ends the week next week with an opportunity to express through words-that-manifest-reality the values of caring and kindness, unity and friendship, brotherhood and sisterhood, mutual respect, compassion – all these components of what our world could become if driven not by hatred but instead by love.
We traditionally observe Tisha B’Av by fasting from sundown to sundown … perhaps as a reminder to avoid having to “eat our words”, so to speak, to avoid reaping the violence that words of hatred can sow.
This year, I will stretch my fast for two days – a half-day Sunday for Tisha B’Av and a half-day Thursday for Charlottesville. A fast of protest against causeless hatred, and a fast of prayer for causeless love.
This fasting will not solve the great problems in the world of hatred and hateful words. I’m hoping it will provide some inspiration and maybe some insight into what can be done to bring more love and loving words into the world. I invite you to join me, and to share any insight you have, because we cannot do nothing.