Elul Reflections: The Power of Our Words

Do our words really matter? In his sermon Friday evening, Rabbi Bill Kuhn explored how every time we speak to another, we have the opportunity to heal or to hurt, to lift up or to tear down.  When we speak ill of someone, the words spread around like the feathers of a pillow, and we will never be able to take them all back, and to undo the harm that is done from our words.

Judaism has a lot to say about how to live a meaningful life.  Our tradition teaches us that during the month of Elul, we should begin to prepare our souls and our hearts for the difficult task of the High Holy Days.  The Hebrew month of Elul began last Tuesday evening, August 6, and lasts until 1 Tishri, the Jewish New Year Rosh Hashanah.  How can we prepare ourselves for the High Holy Days?

During the High Holy Days, we concern ourselves with life’s most serious issues:  Who am I?  For what do I stand?  What are my values?  Am I living my life is such a way that I express those values in everything I do and say?

These are profound issues, and it takes thought and reflection to  be able to successfully work our way through them.  Elul is the time for preparing.

This summer during Friday evening Shabbat services, we are exploring the question of “What is Jewish about everyday life?”  If you look hard, you will see Jewish lessons about life everywhere.  If you listen carefully, you will hear our ancient sages speaking to us, between the lines, even in the most mundane of places.

Riley Cooper is a wide receiver on the Philadelphia Eagles professional football team.  Recently he made a terrible racial slur while at a concert, and his awful words were caught on YouTube, which went viral, and caused damage and hurt feelings to African Americans everywhere, as well as to all of us who are concerned about decency and humanity and the lasting damage that words can bring to people.

This story is yet another sad reminder of the fact that the scourge of racism still exists in our nation.  And, as though we needed another reminder, of how much work is yet to be done to try to bring about a feeling of harmony and compassion in this country, this country with a population as diverse as any on earth.

But what fascinated me about this story is the lessons it may provide to each of us about the power of our words, and the meaning of repentance.  Both good topics to think about during this month of Elul, as we try to improve our lives and the way we act and speak to and about each other.

Judaism teaches us that our words do matter, and that every time we speak to another, we have the opportunity to heal or to hurt, to lift up or to tear down.

There is even a verse in Talmud that says speaking negatively about someone is considered equivalent to murder (Yerushalmi Peah 1:1).  When you speak ill of someone, you cannot really take it back, and you have no idea how much harm it can cause.

I am sure you all know the old story about the feather pillow.  If you cut open a pillow filled with feathers, and toss the feathers to the wind, they will blow all over the place, and you will never be able to find them all and put them all back into the pillow.  Such are our words.  When we speak ill of someone, the words spread around and we will never be able to take them all back, and to undo the harm that is done from our words.

What is the meaning of repentance?  This is the essence of our High Holy Day efforts, and Judaism is filled with wisdom and guidance as to how to try to repair ourselves, and to repair the damage we do in the world.

After Riley Cooper’s derogatory racial remarks became public, he left the Eagles team for a while.  This week he returned to the team.  He said he had gone to each member of the team and individually apologized to them for what he had done, and he promised he would change, and that would never do this again.

But he said something that caught my attention.  Riley Cooper said he did not ask his teammates to forgive him, “because that puts the burden on them.”  He said, “I want the burden all on me.  I want to apologize, and I want them to know my apology is from my heart.  My goal now is to earn back the respect of my teammates…just by my actions.  I hope they will judge me by what I do in the future.”  According to all news reports, his teammates have accepted him back, and they are willing to move forward.

Now, we all may be a bit cynical about Cooper’s apology, especially since he is one of the Eagles’ only healthy wide receivers left, but the story gives us insight into the meaning of repentance.

The great Jewish sage of the middle ages, Moses ben Maimonides taught that true repentance involves three stages:  (1) Admit you have made a mistake.  (2) Go to the person you have harmed and apologize.  (3) Most important, when faced with the same situation or temptation again, do not repeat the same mistake.  This third step is the most difficult, but the most important.

There is a verse in this week’s Torah Portion, “Shoftim” (Deuteronomy 17:16)  “You must not go back that way again.”  Dr. Carol Ochs, professor of Hebrew Union College, spoke about this verse in terms of Freud’s theory of “repetition compulsion.”  People tend to make the same mistakes, according to Freud, and people may excuse their poor behavior by blaming it on external forces, such as an unhappy childhood, etc.

Dr. Ochs teaches that our Torah portion says that this cannot be true.  “God brought us out of Egypt…so you cannot blame your former enslavement for your present actions…you must now become a responsible moral agent.”

Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR congregation in California suggest 3 things to do during this month of Elul to “wake us up to the way we speak”:  (1) Tape this note to your computer:  “Pause before you post.”  (2) Designate one hour every day during Elul when you will not say anything negative about someone else (must be waking hours!).  (3) Create a “kvetch jar.”  Each time you find yourself speaking poorly about someone, put a dime, dollar, $100, into a jar, and at the end of the month, give the money to tzedakah.  According to Rabbi Brous, “at least something good should come out of your dirty mouth.”

During this month of Elul, let us think about the power of our words, and may we use our words to inspire, and the heal, and to make the world a happier place.

L’shanah tovah–Your RS clergy