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Rosh Hashanah Sermon - May the Words of Our Mouth (October 2016)

Cruelty Culture

     As she made the long journey from New York to South Africa to visit family during the holidays in 2013, Justine Sacco, 30 years old and a communications professional at an American internet and media company, began tweeting to her 170 Twitter followers about the trials and tribulations of her journey. She was trying to be funny. She complained about the body odor of a passenger on her plane. During her layover at Heathrow in London she made a reference to the bad teeth stereotype of the British. And then, before the final leg of her trip to Cape Town, she tweeted, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” 
Sacco boarded the plane, and then slept on much of the 11-hour flight. When the plane landed in Cape Town she turned on her phone and realized that something was wrong. Her phone had exploded with texts and alerts. One text was from her best friend Hannah: “You need to call me immediately.” And then it rang. It was Hannah. “You’re the No. 1 worldwide trend on Twitter right now,” she said. Sacco’s Twitter feed had become a horror show. She was condemned and criticized, and called offensive, ignorant and a racist. By the time she had  touched down, tens of thousands of angry tweets had been sent in response to her comment. Many called for her to be fired, and her employer sent a tweet condemning her comment and distancing the company from it. One person went to the airport to tweet her arrival, took her photograph and posted it online. Sacco was indeed let go and was devastated by having been the target of so much hate and venom thrown her way. She left the country for a while to do volunteer work, and then came back. It took her months to get back on her feet and find another job, and much longer for her to be able to put this nightmare behind her. While her comment had certainly been in bad taste, did the punishment fit the crime and the evisceration? I don’t think so!
     I tell you this story because it’s but one example of what has become the new normal: public shaming. Social media has ushered in an era in which countless people feel entitled to publicly criticize, condemn, or try to shame others. To use hurtful and hateful words to judge others and to attack their dignity, most often anonymously, and from a distance.
     Justine Sacco was not a public figure prior to her public shaming, but public figures are often the brunt of similar attacks. Take Gabby Douglas, for example. Last night I spoke about Simone Biles; this morning Gabby Douglas. I must have a thing for female gymnasts. Douglas, like her teammate Aly Raisman, was part of the “Fierce Five” women’s gymnastics team in 2012 and the “Final Five” team just a few months ago. Douglas is one of three U.S. gymnasts in Olympic history to win three gold medals. She is the first African American woman to win the individual all-around Olympic gold. She has written two books. She is so inspiring that she has her very own Barbie doll. And she has done all of this before she is old enough to legally drink! Which makes the attacks she endured on social media that much more despicable. She was criticized for standing at attention and not putting her hand on her heart during the medal ceremony after the team took the all-around gold. She was called out for her facial expressions. And some people criticized her hair. Her hair! She was barraged with hate language by nameless, faceless do nothings hiding behind the anonymity of social networks. One of the people who came to her defense was Leslie Jones. Jones is on the cast of Saturday Night Live and starred in the recent Ghostbusters movie. Before the verbal attacks on Douglas, Jones had taken a similar beating on social media, so much so that she closed her Twitter account. Douglas and Jones have both acknowledged how hurtful this anonymous barrage of criticism was. They are human beings with feelings who did nothing wrong and certainly didn’t deserve the verbal abuse they endured. Both of these women are enormously talented and successful. And yet, anonymous people, who have probably accomplished very little in their own lives, saw fit to attack them with words of reproach and rebuke in an effort to disparage them and shame them.
     I offer one final example, that of Brene Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston. Brown is a prolific author and speaker on topics such as vulnerability, imperfection, shame and empathy. Several years ago, after a TED talk of hers went viral, and after she published an article on imperfection for, mean-spirited comments emerged on social media mostly about her appearance and having nothing to do with the content of her messages. Brown and the others I have described were targets of what she calls the “the cruelty culture we live in today in which everyone is fair game.” The cruelty culture! And these few examples I give you this morning are the tip of the iceberg. This happens every day, and not only to public figures. So-called “cyberbullying” is a regular occurrence in schools everywhere. Words have meaning, words have power. While “consider the source” is good advice, it is often easier said than done, perhaps especially for younger people for whom peer pressure and acceptance are driving factors in their self-image and psyches.
     Brene Brown suggests that today we need to develop shame resilience skills necessary to combat the increasing attacks that we may confront. Shame resilience—is this what we have come to today—a cruelty culture and shame resilience?

Declining Empathy

     We can speculate about why this phenomenon has become so common, and many have done so. The person I turn to to make sense of such things is Sherry Turkle, an MIT professor who studies and analyzes the effects of technology on people and society. Turkle suggests that smart phones and texting have led to a decline in empathy. She observes that our increasing use of technology to communicate has been at the expense of face-to-face conversations which help to humanize us, enable us to learn to listen, and to develop our capacity for empathy. “But these days,” argues Turkle, “we find ways around conversation. We hide from each other even as we’re constantly connected to each other…It all adds up to a flight from conversations [in which] empathy and intimacy flourish…Technology is implicated in an assault on empathy.” Turkle argues that cell phones create a barrier between people and make us feel less connected to each other, less invested in each other.
     Turkle was invited to a middle school by its administration to consult due to a perceived disturbance in their students’ friendship patterns and a concern that the children were not developing empathy in the way that the educators’ years of experience suggested they should. She observed that texting had replaced conversations among the students. The more they texted, the less they engaged in face-to-face talking. That meant lost practice in the empathic arts—learning to make eye contact, to listen, and to attend to others.
     On the other end of the spectrum, she reports that at a summer camp that bans all electronic devices, in only five days children show an increased capacity for empathy. She describes the reactions of some 14-year-old boys after a 3-day wilderness hike. What makes the biggest impression is time without a phone, what one boy calls “time where you have nothing to do but think quietly and talk to your friends.”  
     Echoing Turkle’s observations, no less a figure than the Dalai Lama once observed that while technology increases human ability and has made a lot of things much easier, “technology cannot produce compassion.” Sherry Turkle goes a step further when she argues that not only does technology not produce compassion, or empathy, but that it is an impediment to these critical human qualities. The more sophisticated our technology has become, the greater the barrier to empathy and to being able to put ourselves in another person’s shoes. This dearth of empathy in part explains why public shaming on social media has become so common—the shamers do not appreciate the harm that their words are doing to their targets.

[Before I continue, a spoiler alert: my wife Carol, who is also a rabbi, will be giving the sermon tomorrow, and she will be focusing on this theme of empathy.]

Judaism and Words

     So much of what I describe to you this morning is antithetical to Jewish teaching and to good Jewish practice. Public shaming on social media involves judging others, and we are taught not to judge another person until we have been in their place. Public shaming attacks the dignity of others, and Judaism teaches us that each and every person is created in the image of God, and therefore deserving of being treated with dignity and respect. Hesed, or compassion, is akin to empathy, and is an essential principle for how we must treat our fellow human beings.  
     And finally, Jewish tradition takes the words that we speak very seriously. It urges us to understand that our words have power. We are commanded to use our words not to harm, but to heal. Not to put down, but to raise up. Not to attack the dignity of others, but to uplift it.
     Lashon harah is one of the cardinal sins of Jewish tradition. It generally refers to slander, but more broadly means “evil speech,” or the misuse or abuse of our words. We are surrounded by lashon harah. It permeates the media, the internet and social media. Its negativity seeps into our very souls.
     An oft-repeated story from Hasidic tradition tells of a rabbi who is approached by a person who feels regret because he engaged in lashon harah, that is, he spoke ill of another person. The rabbi instructs him to go home, take a feather pillow, cut it open and scatter the feathers in the wind. While not understanding the rabbi’s reasoning, he nonetheless goes home and does as the rabbi suggested. The next day he returns, and the rabbi tells him that he will only be forgiven for his lashon hara after he gathers all the feathers together. “But that is impossible!” he replies. And the rabbi explains that so it is with lashon harah—once the words have been disseminated, it is so very very difficult to fix the harm that such speech does to its victim.
     The message that our words are important, that our words have meaning and power runs throughout Jewish tradition. It appears virtually everywhere you turn in our sacred texts, from the most ancient to the most modern. Mi haish…“Who is the person who desires life, loves days, that he may see good?” asks the Psalmist. And the answer: “N’tzor l’shoncha merah…” “Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking guile. Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.” We are taught in Proverbs (18) that “Mavet v’hayyim b’yad halashon,” “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” Our words have the power of life and death!
     At the end of every Amidah prayer, three times a day, we read “Yiyu l’ratzon imrei fi,…” “May the words of my mouth and meditations of my heart be acceptable to You, my Rock and my Redeemer.” We pray that our words will be acceptable to God. Not only words of prayer, I would argue, but our words to each other.
     In the creation narrative in Genesis, God gives Adam the power of naming, and all of the animals pass before Adam and he names them. This was the beginning of mankind as a distinctive creation, superior to animals and even to angels—not merely because he can talk, but because of his ability to create words. Words are powerful vehicles, and each of us has a responsibility to use our words and to choose our words carefully and wisely. As the contemporary Jewish novelist Jonathan Safran Foer suggests, “Judaism has a special relationship with words. Giving a word to a thing is to give it life. ‘Let there be light,’ God said, and there was light. No magic, no raised hands in thunder. The articulation made it possible. It’s perhaps the most powerful of all Jewish ideas. Expression is generative.”
     The message that lashon harah is damaging and should be avoided runs throughout Jewish tradition. We are taught that it damages not only the subject of the evil speech, but also the speaker and the listener. Maimonides, one of the greatest scholars of all of Jewish tradition, tells us that “Lashon harah kills three people: The speaker, the listener and the subject of the harmful speech. The listener suffers more than the speaker,” he argues. (Laws of Character Development)
     How lowly it is to focus on another person’s shortcomings, says Rabbeinu Yonah, an oft-quoted 13th century Spanish rabbi. He quotes a verse from Proverbs (14:9) which, loosely translated, says, “Fools point out the wrong, while the upstanding ones seek out the desirable.” Fools look to find fault: “Whom can I criticize and put down today?” In contrast, the righteous, upstanding person seeks out what is good in others.
     Nowhere is this sensitivity to how we use our words and what we say, more apparent than on our holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur. Five times throughout the day we recite the Al Chet, pounding our chests as we enumerate the various sins of omission and commission we have engaged in throughout the year. It is significant how many of those al chets refer to sins of speech: bitui sefatyim, speaking recklessly; dibur peh, offensive talk; vidui lev, empty confession; hillul hashem, public desecration of Your name; tipshut peh, foolish talk; lashon harah, slander; richilut, gossip; kachas uv’chazav, fraud and falsehood; siach siftoteynu, idle chatter; shivuat shav, taking vain oaths. As we consider how we have failed ourselves and others on our holiest of days, our verbal abuses and sins of speech are front and center.

Leaders and Words

     I ask you to consider briefly sins of speech and abuse of language in relation to leadership. To our leaders. All of our leaders. Religious leaders, business leaders, political leaders. “Life and death are in the power of the tongue,” suggests Proverbs. Is that hyperbole? Poetic? An exaggeration? I don’t think so. I take you back to the Israel of 1995, and what happened to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Rabin was part of the Israel’s founding generation, as was Shimon Peres, who died just last week. He had been a military hero who had turned to politics and become Prime Minister. Rabin had attempted to resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict through the first negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization in what came to be known as the Oslo peace process. Despite his acknowledged military heroism, Rabin was disparaged in a vitriolic campaign by conservative politicians and religious leaders. He was called a traitor to the Jewish people, worse than the most anti-Semitic gentile. Rallies became increasingly extreme in tone. Posters portrayed Rabin in a Nazi SS uniform, or showed him in the cross-hairs of a sniper. A religious and politically far-right law student, Yigal Amir, was persuaded that Rabin was endangering Jewish lives, and he shot and killed Rabin after a peace rally. Mavet v’hayyim b’yad halashon. “Life and death are in the power of the tongue.” An exaggeration? I don’t think so.
    Repeatedly people in positions of influence and power, in both the religious and political realms, had attacked Rabin, calling him the worst slurs imaginable in both the Jewish and Israeli contexts. It took only one individual to hear their words and to be influenced and persuaded that something drastic needed to be done, and that he was going to step forward and do it for the good of the cause. And so the first Jew against Jew assassination in modern times came about, one of the greatest tragedies in the short history of the Jewish State. Life and death are in the power of the tongue.
     I must confess that I have thought about the Rabin assassination more than once during our current political season. Numerous commentators, both here and in Israel, including Rabin’s son Yuval, have spoken about it as well. Words suggesting, if not encouraging, violence, have been spoken on more than one occasion. It takes only one Yigal Amir to take them to heart and to try to act on them, and I have worried about this on multiple occasions.
     So we must choose our leaders wisely. All of our leaders. And one of the things we must ask ourselves, among many considerations, is who understands the power of the words they speak? Who understands the implications and potential consequences of his, or her, words? Who uses their words responsibly, and who carelessly? Who chooses words that have the power to heal, to bring comfort, to uphold the dignity of others? And who uses words with the potential, if not the intent, to harm or to do violence? We must choose our leaders, as well as our words, wisely.  

May the Words of Our Mouths

     Lastly, I ask us to consider our own use of words. On these days of introspection and repentance, I encourage you to consider how your words have affected those around you—your loved ones, your neighbors, your coworkers, as well as yourself.
     So I ask of all of us, not only today, but over the course of this period of the Ten Days of Teshuvah, to consider the following questions as we reflect back on the past year in an effort to learn from our failures and to improve in the coming year:

  • Have I hurt others, or have I been hurt by lashon harah? How has that affected me?
  • If I spoke lashon harah, what impact did it have on my relationships with others? What effect did it have on my spirit or soul?
  • Have I heard lashon harah? How has it impacted me? Did I try to intercept or stop it? Why, or why not?
  • Rabbi Menachem Mendel Leffin, an early 19th century Ukrainian rabbi, taught: “Before you open your mouth, be silent and reflect: ‘What benefit will my speech bring me or others?’” Can I think of a time, or times, over this past year, when I should have reflected before speaking? What harm did I cause? How can I learn to practice deliberation so as to avoid wrongful or hurtful speech in the future?  

Make Good Choices

     I want to close by quoting a very dear friend of mine. Linda Grife and her husband Saul have been my closest friends for many years. I was Linda’s Kadima advisor when she was in 7th grade. We lost Linda just about a month ago after her years-long courageous battle with cancer.
     Linda and Saul have three beautiful young adult daughters who have lived in New York, Philadelphia, Israel and Austin. But wherever the girls have lived, every Friday afternoon, before Shabbat, they would get a call via phone or FaceTime from their parents, who would invoke the traditional Shabbat blessing of the children over each of them. And Linda would always conclude with the words “Make good choices.”
     So I encourage, I urge each of us, in the coming year, to make good choices in the words that we choose, whether face-to-face, or on FaceTime or Facebook or Twitter. For once we put our words out there, like feathers from a pillow, we cannot retrieve them. May we choose our words carefully, and may they focus on the good of others. May they uplift and enrich those around us. Yiyu l’ratzon imrei fi… May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to You, Adonai, our Rock and our Redeemer.

Sherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation
Jon Ronson, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed
Brene Brown, Daring Greatly
Adin Steinsaltz, Simple Words

Fri, July 12 2024 6 Tammuz 5784