Let Me Be Honest with You

Last week, the blog’s first week back from Bethany Bar Harbor and Egg Harbor, I talked about my nostalgic visit to the old Hillel haunts in Michigan. Now, as promised, it’s back to real life, which is amazingly dominated by Trump-related news. The five minute national news on WTOP, to which I awake in the mornings, had nothing but Trump every second one day late last week, like there was nothing else going on in the world.

In shul on Shabbat, Beth El’s new young rabbi educator, Max Nissen, gave a nice guest sermon on the choices we have in life, including what to do when we are really angry, like after Charlottesville. About halfway through, he paused, and said “Let me be honest with you…” How many times have I heard that expression? A zillion, but this time it jumped out at me, in a very problematical way. Did he mean that until that point, he wasn’t being honest with us? Of course that is not what he meant, he meant that he was going to be frank with us, share something we might not have known about him. But on its literal surface, those words made me question the one who spoke them; I resolved never to use them, gone from my vocabulary.

That got me to thinking about the power of words, made strikingly relevant by our supposed President. Words can do so much good – a kind word to a kid, a supportive word to someone struggling, a word of affection. And words can do so much damage – they can belittle, they can take the wind out of our sails, they can increase hatred and prejudice, they can bring the world to the brink of disaster (think Hitler.) So, when Trump said midweek that there were “very fine people” among the neo-Nazis, white supremacists and Klansmen whose actions led to the violence in Charlottesville, the reaction to those three words was a pretty awesome demonstration of the power of words. (BTW, I dare him to name even one.)  The reaction was widespread, even corporate execs couldn’t stomach those words. But they do fit into our understanding of the power of the spoken word, in this case actually maybe more for the good than for the bad because they helped us know for sure who we are dealing with. In case we weren’t sure.

When Gail and I stood under the chuppah, it was over 30 years ago, Rabbi Sam Fishman prayed that we would always choose the words we would say to each other wisely. He reminded us that God created humans with one tongue and two lips, giving us twice the power to stop speech as to make it, and we should understand that to be a message about choosing our words carefully. A great lesson, not forgotten these many years later. It is too much to expect that this President think before he speaks and tweets. But that isn’t an excuse for us to model that behavior. We can, and should, do much better.

Best regards and safe eclipse. Gail commented when she saw the teshuvah on what blessing to say when we see the eclipse, that only the Jews could respond to a simple question with a small book length answer. That explains a lot about us. Best, Bill Rudolph

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