Yom Kippur 5780 Words That Hurt, Words That Heal
I recently heard about an usher for the high holy days. He greeted an older elderly woman who was visiting. He gave her a prayer book and walked her into the sanctuary. He asked her very politely, “Where would you like to sit?”
She answered: “The front row, please.”
“You sure you want to do that?” the usher asked. “The rabbi is really boring.”
The woman said, “Do you happen to know who I am?” “No,” he said.
“I’m the rabbis mother,” she replied indignantly.
“Do you know who I am?” he asked.
No,” she said So he said, “Good.”
We have all had moments like this—we insult someone’s relative, spouse, or friend. We say something unkind. We say something thoughtless and then we wish we could take it back.
On Yom Kippur we come to synagogue to confess our “sins” —our transgressions and our mistakes. Yet most of us have not committed murder, armed robbery or other wrongdoings that seem overly significant. While some of us may have larger transgressions that weigh heavily upon us this year or even smaller ones in which we harbor guilt, most of us think of ourselves as good people—we try our best and aim to do the right thing.
Yet there are some smaller wrongs that we commit on a regular basis that we may not even realize we have committed. Included in our prayer known as the “al chet” –a confession of our communal sins that we read in the Machzor, the High Holy Day Prayer Book, is the line:
“al chet shchatanu lefanecha bircihlut” “ the harm(sin) we have caused in Your world through gossip and rumors.”
This seems to like a less serious transgression than the other’s it is grouped with such as “taking bribes and dishonesty in business.” Yet it is probably the misdeed that most of us practice more than any other.
Judaism has many names for gossip. Jewish law defines two major categories of forbidden speech. One is called Lashan Hara and the other, rekhilutut, the verb used in the al chet. Literally, lashon hara means “the wicked tongue; and rekhilut can be defined as telling tales. In Jewish legal usage, lashon hara refers to things forbidden to say, while rekhilut refers to disseminating negative information to others.
We all know that gossip- speaking about people behind their backs is wrong but yet we all do it, and most of us do it on a regular basis.
We let an unfiltered comment slip out, we say something disparaging about an acquaintance or a co-worker or we share information that was not ours to share. Mostly we gossip because it’s fun, it gives us something to talk about, it helps us connect to others (even at another’s peril) and even makes us feel important.
And other times we have valid reasons to share information—to protect someone, to prevent an undeserving person from being granted a prestigious position, or to right a wrong—but let’s be honest—how much of what we share is necessary information?
In his new book, “Words that Hurt, Words that Heal,” Rabbi Joseph Telushkin offers three reasons why people speak ABOUT others
- To raise our status by lowering other’s status
- To appear “in the know”
- To exact revenge against people who have wronged us, but we are too timid to confront: If we complain to the offending party, we risk being hurt again by his or her response.
Sometimes we share something seemingly innocuous, perhaps a piece of not yet disclosed information, or factual details about another person—and think nothing of it—but we don’t know what the ripple effect of sharing that information will be.
A woman repeated a story (some gossip) about a neighbor. Within a few days everyone in the community knew the story. The person she talked about heard what had been said about her and she was very upset. Later, the woman who had spread the story learned that it was actually not true. She was very sorry and went to a wise rabbi and asked what she could do to repair the damage.
After giving this some thought, the rabbi said to her, “Go home, get one of your feather pillows, and bring it back to me.” Surprised by the rabbi’s response, the woman followed her advice and went home to get a feather pillow and brought it to the rabbi.
“Now,” said the rabbi, “cut open the pillow and pull out all the feathers.” Confused, the woman did what she was told to do.
After a few minutes, the rabbi said, “Ok, now, I want you to find every one of the feathers and put them back into the pillow.”
“That’s impossible,” said the woman, almost in tears. “The window is open, and the wind has scattered them all over the room and blown many feathers outside. I can’t possibly find them all.”
“Yes,” said the rabbi. “And that is what happens when you gossip or tell a story about someone else. Once you talk about someone, the words fly from one person’s mouth to another, just like these feathers flew in the wind. Once you say them, you can never take them back.”
Jewish tradition teaches:
One who speaks against another person in anger is like one who shoots an arrow. An arrow aimed at someone cannot be recalled, no matter how much we may regret having shot it.
Numbers Rabba says “Gossip kills three people at once: the one who speaks it, the one who listens, and the one about whom they speak.” (Numbers Rabbah 19:2).
We just heard some juicy new gossip…and we are dying to share it but what if that person did not want the information shared. And in turn, you have now given that temptation to another person. The person who you shared this nugget of information with naturally wants to unload this juicy tidbit with another person. And the cycle continues like feathers blowing in the wind.
This information also alters that person’s perception of the person of whom you have shared….or may even cause the listener to go directly to the source of the gossip with a reaction—to ask if it’s true? To offer a comment: A sympathetic expression or even a well-meaning congratulation.
And that comes back to bite the originally disseminator of information, break the trust of everyone involved, and make people aware that they are being discussed behind their backs.
And if we are hearing someone else’s secret—we must wonder—are they is that person sharing our secrets as well? A vicious cycle is born—we lose our trust in confiding in others—and then in turn they lose their trust in confiding in us—and the distance remains. When trust is broken, it is extremely difficult to build back.
Rabbi Telushkin further explains, “Many otherwise good people use words irresponsibly and cruelly in part because they regard the injuries inflicted by words as intangible, and therefore minimize the damage words can inflict.”
Psychiatrist Antonio Wood notes that when we speak ill of someone, we alienate ourselves from that person. The more negative our comments, the more distant we feel from that object. Thus, one who speaks unfairly of many people comes to distance and alienate himself from many individuals and as Dr. Wood notes, alienation is a major cause of depression, one of the most widespread disorders in America.
The Talmud tells us whoever shames his neighbor in public it is as if he shed his blood. – We know that words can hurt but is it really fair to equate it with killing a person?
The analogy is deemed apt because a shamed person’s skin blanches as the blood drains from his face. And more importantly a person who feels humiliated may wish he or she were dead. Public humiliation is nothing to make light of. The act of destroying one’s reputation can destroy one’s life. Jewish law regards humiliating another person, particularly in public, as one of the cruelest things anyone can do.
At a time when death by suicide is the 10th greatest cause of death and when according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, there are on average 129 suicides per day, shouldn’t we realize the impact of our words—whether it be in person or over social media, through cyber bullying.
Today lashon hara is not just engaged in by the spoken word-, it is committed electronically and through technology. It is all too easy to disseminate information by thoughtless text or email.
So many of our teenagers have to deal with bullying in middle school, high school and college-both in school and over social media. . And I wish it ended there. There are adult bullies who exert their power over others.
It’s not just talking ABOUT people that is dangerous but also the WAY we speak TO PEOPLE. These days we seemed to have lost the ability to engage in civil discourse.
Pirke Avot, a Jewish Ethical collection of pithy statements teaches, (5:17)
“A controversy for the sake of Heaven will have lasting value, but a controversy NOT for the sake of Heaven will not endure.” What is an example of a ‘controversy for the sake of Heaven’? The debates of Hillel and Shammai.
Hillel and Shammai were two different yeshivot-schools of study that often interpreted texts in different ways. “The sake of Heaven” in Hebrew is l’shem shamayim. Which came be understand as “for the greatest good.” The opposite of “for the sake of Heaven” is “for your own aggrandizement,” for your own benefit. That’s an important pole in rabbinic thought: You want your actions NOT to be for the gratification of your own ego, but rather for the sake of Heaven, in other words, for the greatest good. Good debate is utilized to come up with the best possible outcome in a complicated world; the other is because you want power for yourself, simply to steamroll over your opponent and show how smart and right you are.
When we are debating issues or engaging in dialogue –it doesn’t give us license to make the attack personal—attacking someone’s name, appearance, race, religion or sexual orientation. We run into great danger when we engage in such tactics.
In 2008, the late Senator John McCain was running as a candidate in the Republican Presidency. Senator McCain found himself at a rally in which people were denouncing his opponent Barack Obama as a “liar” and a “terrorist,” McCain shook his head, took the mike and said, “He’s a decent family man, a citizen that I had just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign is all about.” Rabbi Teluskin points out, Senator McCain in no way felt the need to minimize or downplay his political opposition to Obama but he didn’t feel that he had to denigrate his opponent as a human being.” Senator McCain recognized that each of us are created B’etzelem Elohim, in the image of God—and that we have a right to be treated respectfully.
And while most of us are not so cruel and mean spirited with our language, many of us still engage in gossip. Old habits are hard to break. It’s human nature to talk about other people. If we don’t gossip, what will we talk about? Will we just stare at each other in silence? Because gossiping is so engrained in society it takes a lot of conscious effort to refrain from engaging is such behavior.
Rabbi Telushnkin offers the following advice—
- Take it “One step at a time” What if every day for a two-hour period you were particularly careful to say nothing bad about anyone? Lunch or dinner might be an ideal time since much nasty gossip is spread and analyzed at mealtimes.
- A good litmus test is to consider whether you are speaking about others in a way that you wouldn’t mind being spoken about yourself. If something about us is to be made known, we want to choose when and whom to reveal it.
So how can we be more mindful with our words?
And how can we transform that evil inclination of spreading hurtful worlds into instead offering words of healing?
We can stop talking ABOUT people and start talking TO people.
We can ask about the person with are with—their day, their life experiences, and share more of ourselves-our own feelings and thoughts rather than than share information about other people.
We can be more present with the people who with. Instead of looking outside to make a connection—maybe more of those connections can come from looking within.
Renowned actress Lynn Fontanne, when asked the secret of a successful marriage to husband and acting partnership with, Alfred Lunt, an equally renowned actor, she responded that they were never uncivil to each other (p95)
One of my favorite biblical stores is the story of when an angel comes to tell Abraham that he and his wife, Sarah will become pregnant with a child. Both Abraham and Sarah are of advanced age and have been trying for unsuccessfully for numerous years to conceive. When Sarah overhears this news, she laughs and say, “I am to give birth with such an old husband?” Upon hearing her laughter, Abraham questions Sarah’s laughter. The angel comes to him says to Abraham, “Your wife laughed and asked how could she give birth when she was so old.” The language used was changed to spare Abraham’s feelings and promote Shalom HaBeit-Family Harmony. The angels changed the words in order to protect Abraham and Sarah’s relationship. The Torah is teaching us that the way a married couple speaks to one another is so critical that it can affect their relationships. The same is true for how we speak to our friends, our neighbors our parents and our children.
How can we create an atmosphere of Shalom HaBeit—Peace within our homes and communities rather than a place of tension and animosity?
Think of how good you feel when someone pays you a compliment or expresses gratitude for something you have done. We are so quick to critique but we are not always as gracious with the praise. Instead of gossiping about a friend—why not call that person directly—and see how they are doing? Sometimes just knowing someone is there can make all the difference.
On Yom Kippur we are charged not just to examine our deeds, but also our words. And the first step towards healing is often an acknowledgment of a misdeed, and an apology. Our words that have so much power to hurt also have so much power to heal.
We need safe spaces to share our feelings, but we also want to believe that those in which we entrust will protect those words.
I want to end with a powerful story I recently heard:
Mrs. Broom and Mrs. Gold were close friends. One morning Mrs. Broom came over to Mrs. Gold’s house and they sat down for their cup of morning coffee, and Mrs. Broom had something on her mind. She told a tragic story-a story of something that was going on in her family-of loss, of betrayal and of deceit. She just really needed to get this all off her chest. And she just spoke and spoke and spoke to Mrs. Gold until she could speak no more. And then she felt a little bit comforted, they hugged, and they kissed and the Mrs. Broom went on her way.
It wasn’t until after Mrs. Broom left that Mrs. Gold realized that her daughter had been listening the entire time and heard every word of Mrs. Broom’s private story. Mrs. Gold wasn’t quite sure how to handle this. She sat her daughter down and said, “I have a question for you, if Mrs. Broom had left her purse here when she came over this morning, would you give it to anyone else? The child said, “Of course not!” “Well why not?” asked Mrs. Gold to her daughter? Her daughter responded, “Well, that bag belongs to Mrs. Bloom and it would be wrong to share it with anyone else! Ah Mrs. Gold continued, “Well, you may have heard, but Mrs. Broom left something much more precious behind today than her purse. She left a story that could make many people unhappy. The story is not ours to give to anyone else. The story is still hers even though she left it here. So we won’t be giving Mrs. Broom’s story to anyone else, do you understand?
The daughter did understand. Ever since that time—a confidence or a bit of careless gossip that a friend left at her house, or in her heart, it was always considered personal and was never hers to share with anyone else.” 
How carefully do we guard the stories of others? How careful are we with our words? Do our words hurt, or do they heal?
This year may our words be one of healing, listening and civility.
G’mar Chamtimah Tovah—May you be Sealed for a Year of Blessing.
 Telushkin, Rabbi Joseph. Words that Hurt, Words that Heal. p.5
 Telushkin, Rabbi Joseph. Words that Hurt, Words that Heal, p.10-11
 BT Bava Mezia 58b
 Telushkin, Joseph. Words that Hurt or Heal.
 Telushkin, Rabbi Joseph. Words that Hurt, Words that Heal p.13-14
 Telushkin, Joseph. Words that Hurt, Words that Heal, page 54.
 Telushkin, Joseph. Words that Hurt, Words that Heal, page 214)
 Cantor Dreskin, Ellen. “What did you Leave on the Table?” Stories we Tell Podcast, URJ, September 12, 2019.
How To Build a Community that will Beat the Odds
Sermon for Erev Yom Kippur – 5780
On Rosh HaShanah, I spoke about truth, memory, and the process of teshuvah to help each of us make the most of these Holy Days; and I challenged us to look at our perceptions and actions through the eyes of others as well as our own so that we could build better selves. Tonight, as Yom Kippur arrives, let’s expand our focus and explore the Torah on how to build the kind of community, the kind of nation, we are supposed to create.
In Deuteronomy we read:
“Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God … Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery … You may say to yourself, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.’ … If you ever forget the Lord your God … I testify against you today that you will surely be destroyed.” [Deut. 8:11-19]
With these words, Moses throws a gauntlet down before the Israelites, in effect saying: ‘Do not think that the forty years of wandering is the hard part, that once you settle the land your problems will be solved. The hard part will come afterward, when you feel safe and secure in your land, and the memory of your wandering becomes distant. Only then will your real spiritual trial begin.’
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks observes: “The real challenge is not poverty but affluence, not insecurity but security, not slavery but freedom. Moses, for the first time in history, was hinting at a law of history.” What is this law? Simply this: complacency and self-satisfaction are the beginning of the end of any civilization.
Complacency and self-satisfaction are the beginning of the end of any civilization.
What will this decline look like? Sacks continues:
“Inequalities will grow. The rich will become self-indulgent. The poor will feel excluded. There will be social divisions, resentments and injustices. Society will no longer cohere. People will not feel bound to one another by a bond of collective responsibility. Individualism will prevail. Trust will decline. Social capital will wane.”
It happened in ancient Babylonia and Persia, in Greece and Rome, in Renaissance Florence and monarchal France, and in the British and Russian Empires. It is happening now.
Moses saw it all, and audaciously taught that it is possible for us to succeed where everyone else fails. While every great civilization throughout history has followed the same arc of growth and decline, we can do better. The book of Deuteronomy dares and challenges us to build a nation strong enough to overcome the very laws of history.
This is the great spiritual challenge we face – not just reaching the Promised Land but keeping it.
Today we see the signs of decline in both the United States and in Israel. Yet none of this is inevitable. There is a way forward, which Moses delineates carefully throughout the book of Deuteronomy.
First, we must remember the Source of our bounty and cultivate both humility and gratitude. I know that many of us are uncomfortable with this, with the very idea of God. We say we are spiritual, but not religious. Some of us find our conception of God to be incompatible with our sense of personal agency, or with science, or with whatever else we may place on a pedestal before us. I respect that, and you, and I struggle alongside you. Indeed, our tradition has revolved around the idea of challenging authority and struggling with God to serve the greater good. Yet, when we go so far as to remove God from our midst, when we assume that human agency is the only power in the world, then it is a short leap indeed to societal decline. For we will worship something in place of God, we always do. Moses reminds us to stay connected with God, lest we do the unthinkable, and begin to think that we ourselves are gods. We are not. We are human, imperfect, fallible.
Second, if we put ourselves in God’s place, and assume that we are the ultimate authorities, then to whom shall we be accountable – ethically or otherwise? Torah exists to teach us that there is a higher authority, and a higher ethical standard. To beat the laws of history, we need to stay true to the ideals and values of Torah; we must hold ourselves accountable to that standard and teach our children to do so as well – even when it means swimming against the current. If we are going to be honest, we can do a better job here. Staying true to Torah requires more than just generalizations like “be a good person” – we need to teach our children better, with specifics. And I don’t mean religious school here. I mean what we teach as parents and grandparents. To do this effectively, we need to study and learn the details ourselves. We need to know Torah.
Here is just one example. In Deuteronomy, we learn how our leaders must lead. In most countries, the king was the law, but not in Israel. Torah teaches that when we have entered the land and decide that we want to appoint a king over ourselves, that the king must follow the same Torah as everyone else – he cannot be above the law. This is an amazing and radical idea. Even more, he is to be chosen from among our brothers, and must be subject to three specific restrictions: he may not multiply his horses, his wives or his gold. On the surface this seems a little archaic. I assure you it is not.
Rabbi Jack Reimer, one of the leading orators in the Conservative Movement, reminds us that in the rest of the world kings are generally seen as “above” the people, but not in Israel. In Israel, they are chosen from among our brothers. The term achi (my brother) is only used in the Torah to describe one other kind of person besides the king: the poor man. For us, for our government, for any community built on Torah, the king is not some god or almighty ruler, but a human being – just like us – and must keep our interests in mind. As for the horses, the wives and the gold — calvary were the equivalent of tanks in the ancient world. Reimer teaches that Torah limits the military might of the king – he can have enough to defend, but not to conquer. The second limit, on wives, should make us uncomfortable for a lot of reasons. However, in the context of the monarchy, marriage was a form a diplomacy, a way to build alliances. By limiting the number of wives a king may have, Torah limits the king’s diplomatic influence – so diplomatic coercion as well as conquest is removed from the king’s power. The final limit, on gold, is especially emphasized in the Hebrew. How did a king acquire wealth? Through taxation. The king must not over tax the people, taxes should only be levied for what is needed to support the government as it serves the people.
Taken together, these details paint an extraordinary picture about the kind of nation Torah expects from and for us: leadership as national service not self-service, power calibrated to the minimum necessary to protect and serve the people, and protections so that the people may not be taken advantage of or oppressed by their government. Our goal is not conquest, but the establishment of a just community. And, these are just some of the specific values of Torah designed to help us beat the odds and prevent our civilization from decline.
Finally, when we remember that God is God and we are not, and when we collectively work to build our lives and communities with Torah, then we can pursue justice not only for ourselves, but for all people. One of the most famous verses in all of Deuteronomy is: “ צדק צדק תרדוף – Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live and inherit the land which the Lord your God gives you.” [Deut. 16:20] Since Torah is incredibly economic and efficient with its language, why is the word “justice” repeated here? There are many interpretations, but my favorite is this: we should read the passage as “Justice, justly, shall you pursue.” In other words, finding justice does not mean justice for ourselves alone. True justice requires us to see not only through our eyes but also through the eyes of others, and maybe even through the eyes of God.
When we try to see through the eyes of God, we try to see the bigger picture. Astronauts, looking down on our planet, have reported how this difference of perspective has caused them to see the pettiness of some of our personal, or even national, disagreements. When we see through the eyes of God, we see that there is a higher purpose to our lives. In Deuteronomy 6:18 we are commanded to do what is right and good in the eyes of God. Doing right and good in the eyes of God means asking ourselves, based on everything we know of our tradition: what would God think of our choices? Are we pursuing our own personal agendas, or are we pursuing the greater good?
Of the three key components to creating a sustainable, ethical and just community, I think that Beth Ami is programmatically strongest here. We are known in the community for our commitment to social justice through our tikkun olam program and our Critical Issues Forum. What you may not know is that we have just been awarded the prestigious Fain Award by the Union of Reform Judaism because of the extraordinary work both of these groups continue to do. In addition to recognizing our many, many tikkun olam volunteers, the Fain Award highlights a major achievement of the Critical Issues Forum: the enactment by the Maryland legislature of the Summer SNAP for Children program – which was mostly written right down the hall with our partner congregations. We can take great pride in our achievements in this area, even as we recognize that there is still so much more to do.
This year, we are also founding members of the first annual Harvest against Hunger competition – a high holiday food drive to help fill Manna’s new warehouse so that they can feed 10,000 more hungry people here in Montgomery County. We are competing with some of our neighbor congregations to see who can increase their giving the most over last year. Please be generous and check the list of nutritional foods they are seeking from the materials we have provided. The drive continues through Sukkot, so there will be a chance for us to see how we compare after Yom Kippur. What a great way to help the hungry, and win a real-life trophy shaped like a can of food!
Our efforts to feed the hungry, help refugee families, and support those in need are important, meaningful and necessary.
And … they are not enough.
Moses knew what he was teaching.
On this Yom Kippur, let’s instill these words of Torah in our minds, our hearts, and our souls. Let’s think of them on our way and when we are at home, when we rise up and when we lie down. For, taken together, the practice of humility and gratitude (God is God and we are not), accountability to a higher standard of behavior (Torah), and the pursuit of justice beyond our own agendas – these are the building blocks of an enduring and life-affirming culture, and a society built to withstand the ravages of history. And, like so many concepts in our tradition, they represent a series of successive steps, each one dependent on the last. If we will not recognize the Source of our bounty and our own limits, then we will have no motivation to learn Torah. If we do not learn Torah, then we will have no motivation to see the world through God’s eyes and pursue the large-scale justice that is beyond our own personal agendas. Many nations have risen and fallen since Torah was first given and received at Sinai, yet our success as a people and a tradition is directly connected to those times when, despite every force in the world pushing us to do otherwise, we have kept faith: with ourselves, with Torah, and with our Creator.
Today is no different.
There is still time for us to act.
 Sacks, Jonathan. Covenant and Conversation: A Study of the Parsha with Rabbi Sacks. “Why Civilisations Fail” Eikev 2017/5777.
 Reimer, Jack. “Politics Then and Now,” unpublished sermon to parashat Shoftim, Summer 2019.
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Even though Thanksgiving is still weeks away, it’s not too early to think about all that we are grateful for. Our family has a particularly poignant story about being grateful and Thanksgiving.
My mother-in-law was a teenager when her family had to hurriedly leave Germany immediately after Kristallnacht. They considered themselves fortunate to have all gotten out, even though they were able to take almost nothing with them. They were on a German boat, headed to the U.S., and so were technically still on German soil. It wasn’t until they got to New York and saw the Statue of Liberty that they knew they had actually sailed to the United States. But the timing was awkward: they had arrived the evening of Thanksgiving and there were no workers at the dock. So everyone had to stay aboard the ship. A Thanksgiving dinner was brought aboard for all to enjoy. And this is how the family first celebrated this uniquely American holiday.
Our family recounts this story every year at Thanksgiving before we go around the table allowing anyone who wishes to say what they’re grateful for. I’m going to suggest that you try something between now and Thanksgiving. Put a piece of paper on your refrigerator, and each day have someone in your family write something on that paper that they are grateful for. At Thanksgiving, share what is on the paper.
I came across this Thanksgiving Prayer, written by Rabbi Naomi Levy and wanted to share it with you.
A Thanksgiving Prayer
By Rabbi Naomi Levy
For the laughter of the children,
For my own life breath,
For the abundance of food on this table,
For the ones who prepared this sumptuous feast,
For the roof over our heads,
The clothes on our backs,
For our health,
And our wealth of blessings,
For this opportunity to celebrate with family and friends,
For the freedom to pray these words
In any language,
In any faith,
In this great country,
Whose landscape is as vast and beautiful as her inhabitants.
Thank You, God, for giving us all these. Amen.