There was once a monastery that was very strict about its vows of silence. Every day the monks would chant and pray, but apart from that, they lived their lives, ate their meals, and did their work in complete silence…with one exception. Every ten years, the monks had an audience with the head monk and could say two words. On his appointed day, one young monk entered the office of the abbot, looked him directly in the eyes and said, “Bed hard.” “I see,” replied the abbot. After ten more years of silence, the same monk entered the abbot’s office, looked him directly in the eyes and said, “food stinks.” “I see,” replied the head monk with equanimity and calm. Ten more years passed and the not-so-young monk entered the abbot’s office, looked him directly in the eyes and said, “I quit.” To which the head monk replied, “Well I’m not surprised. All you ever do is complain.”
Tonight is the night on which we examine our words, the words we say not once every ten years, but every day. Tonight’s prayers are about our words- the words we say to those we love, the words we say out in the world, and the words we tell ourselves as well. We sing Kol Nidre, a prayer about our vows and promises, and we recite confessions, atoning for our harsh and hurtful words. Last year on Yom Kippur I spoke about listening, and tonight, I am speaking about words, about the holy power of words to create and to heal, and about the power of words to harm and to destroy. I am speaking about words tonight because I, like you, am concerned by the lack of civility in our nation. I am troubled by the intolerance and divisiveness that has found its way into our lives and into our souls. And I am distraught by the racism, xenophobia, and misogyny that have been legitimated and given voice by this presidential election. We have seen it at rallies and debates, in the media from newspapers to Facebook and Twitter. Time Magazine editor Nancy Gibbs recently reported, “I’ve had…online trolls call me horrible names and say I am biased and stupid and deserve to be raped.” The veteran journalist, Bradley Burston described just last week how he’d been the target of increased anti-Semitic slurs. He wrote, “I hadn’t been called k…since the fourth grade,” over 50 years ago.
What is so troubling is that this poison has seeped into our cities and onto our streets, and into schools as well. One concerned principal of a local high school wrote, “This season of name-calling and utter disregard for data-driven, fact based argument has reached an alarming level.” And it has. It is alarming because contrary to what one presidential nominee has claimed, words do have power, and too many demeaning and dangerous words have unleashed a torrent of hate and fear in our nation. That’s what happened in Boston when two adult brothers beat a 58-year-old homeless man with a metal pole while he was sleeping on the street. They claimed it was okay because he was homeless and Latino. Recently, the Southern Poverty Law Center polled 2,000 teachers who concurred, “This campaign is eliciting fear and anxiety among children of color, immigrants and Muslims, and emboldening students to mimic the words and tone of the campaign.”[i] The teachers reported that students are using more slurs and derogatory terms to make fun of other students. One teacher from New Hampshire said, “They believe all Muslims want to kill us and that they are a threat to this country and our way of life. A lot of students also think we should kill any and all people we do not agree with.” Our children are afraid in New Hampshire and in Baltimore, in Orlando and Minnesota, and they are anxious and afraid right here in Marin County as well.
The Talmud records an ancient debate that sheds light on the essence of leadership and society. In it, Rabbi Yehudah Nesiah[ii] said, “the character of a generation reflects that of its leader.” But the other rabbis disagree with him, contending that, “the character of a leader reflects that of his or her generation.” Perhaps both are correct. Perhaps leaders both reflect and influence the people they serve. But if this is the case, what does this say about our generation? Will we be the generation where it becomes acceptable to attack people because of the color of their skin? Or because of our gender? Will we be the generation that taunts one another because of our religion or where we were born? Will ours be the generation that loses its soul? And if Rabbi Nesiah is correct, and our leaders do reflect the character of our generation, then we need leaders who reflect the very best of our character. We need leaders who reflect our most noble values and the very best of our humanity.
Tonight, I am not talking about candidates or partisanship. This isn’t about republicans or democrats and ultimately it’s not even about this presidential election. What I am speaking about transcends all of that. This is about the soul of our nation and all who reside here. This is about our own souls and the souls of our children and all children in this land. Because on November 9th, the day after the election, after the last ballots are counted and the campaign banners come down, we will wake to a nation that is broken, wounded from this cruel battle of insults and degradation, divided by intolerance and fear. Yet it is on that same day that our healing begins. We need to reclaim our civility as a nation and as people. We need to reclaim our decency. And we need to reclaim our kindness. And I believe we do this word by word, sentence by sentence, one conversation at a time. And it’s not just about our elected officials and our leaders. It’s about us. Because it starts with us, with each of us, with every word we say, with every conversation we have, both in the public sphere and the words we say to those we care for and love. And it begins with the words we tell ourselves in the depth of our hearts.
For us, the healing begins tonight in this sacred place and on this holiest night of the year. I know it may feel challenging given how unsettled things are in our nation and the anxiety we each carry. I have heard so many say that they are holding their breath just waiting to see what will happen. But you and I can’t hold our breath that long. Yom Kippur is our opportunity to take a collective deep breath. We are here because we need to heal and we need to breathe and we need to sit quietly with our prayers. For us the healing starts tonight, with every confession we make, with every prayer we sing, and with every word we say with humility and honesty and reverence. Tonight we seek forgiveness for words we said in haste, for the times we have judged other, shamed others. We seek atonement for our hurtful words, and for all the loving words we did not say. Tonight reminds us that our words have tremendous power. Our words convey ideas and real emotions and once spoken, our words no longer belong to us alone. Like feathers floating in the wind, our words can fly to places we never imagined. They can hurt people we’ve never even met. Our words shape our world and our relationships. They have tremendous capacity to elevate or to bring low.
About the power of words, Judaism is clear. Our tradition teaches that it was with words alone that God created the universe. In the beginning there were no great battles, no explosions of fire and ice as in other ancient creation stories. There were just words. “God said let there be light,” and there was light. “Vayahi ohr.” God said, “Let the dry land appear,” and it was so. God said, “Let there be living creatures and birds across the expanse of the sky,” and it was so. And while our tradition teaches that the world was created with words, so too can worlds and lives be destroyed with words as well.
Proverbs 18:21 states that, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” And they are. Do you remember as a child, if someone said something hurtful we were taught to respond, “stick and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me?” But it’s not true. Words do hurt and they do kill. Just ask the parents of Rebecca Ann Sedwick. This 12-year-old girl from Florida was the target of on-line bullying by her classmates. “You are so ugly,” they taunted, “why are you still alive.” This vicious and vile torment continued until she jumped to her death from the town’s water tower.
So if both death and life are in the power of the tongue, how can we use our tongue for life and for good? I believe it starts by keeping Leviticus 19:16 on the tips of our tongues, “You shall not be a slanderer against your people, and you shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” Our voices need to be the ones that will lift up this generation. Ours need to be the voices of compassion and justice. We need to speak up when cruel or vicious words are spoken or written. Because every time we stand up and call out bigotry or hatred or just plain rudeness, we, word by word, help to heal our nation, our neighbors, and ourselves.
I am so inspired by one young woman from Illinois who is doing just that. When she first heard about Rebecca Ann Sedwick and how she’d been tormented and bullied and ultimately died, Trisha Prahbu, just 13-years-old at the time, was heartbroken and outraged. She wanted to help curb the tide of bullying and prevent others from being hurt. She explained, “From a young age I was always encouraged by my parents to speak and not just to listen.” So Trisha worked tirelessly to create a solution. With a sophisticated algorithm she created, Trisha developed an on-line anti-bullying app called ReThink. When someone writes or posts something identified by the app as offensive, they receive an alert saying, “This message may be hurtful to others. Are you sure you want to post this?” They then have the choice to delete the post, erasing the damaging words. And the results? 93% of the time people change their minds. 93% of the time they rethink their choice of words, using kinder words or no words at all. Today, Ms. Prahbu’s app is motivating thousands to think before they speak or post, recognizing the power of their words. For her anti-bullying advocacy, Trisha has won countless awards and national recognition. She has given her own TedxTalk, visited the White House, and even appeared on Shark Tank, where she received $100,000 from Mark Cuban and Lori Greiner for a 20% stake in her company. And she was just named one of the 15 smartest kids on the planet by the Super Teen Power List. But more importantly, Trisha Prahbu has inspired millions of people to consider how we speak to one another and she is working hard to lift up a generation.
Long before there was an Internet or social media, Judaism created its own app of sorts to help us rethink our words. Every day, we each make hundreds of decisions about what we say and how we say it. And sometimes, it’s hard. It’s hard to say exactly what we mean all of the time, to be vulnerable, to be loving, to be patient, to be true. Recognizing this many generations ago, the rabbis added a special prayer asking God to guide us to use our words for holiness and for good. And so today, and every day, when we rise for the Amidah, one of our holiest prayers, we begin with a blessing and we end with a blessing; Adonai sifatai tiftach uufi-yagid tahilatecha, Adonai open up my lips that my mouth may declare Your praise. And at the end of the prayer we recite, Elohai nitzor l’shoni me-ra; God, keep my tongue from doing harm, my lips from deceit and lies. And before those who wrong me, may humility be my practice.” Imagine if before every conversation we had, we contemplated those words. Imagine how much more humane our nation would be if our leaders recited those words before speaking aloud, or before a debate or rally or interview.
It wasn’t that long that ago that there were far fewer ways to communicate and we had to choose our words even more carefully. Telephones were tethered to the wall, typewriters didn’t have delete buttons, and letters we sent were written on paper and required a stamp. And long distance calls were very expensive, at least that’s what my grandmother told me every time we spoke on the phone and she’d tell me to hurry because it long distance and cost so much. Today, words can so easily become cheapened, and the anonymity of the Internet attracts far too much cruelty. We truly need to consider our words, our tone, and our intention, when posting and speaking to others. Menachem Mendel of Kotzk understood this when he created these guidelines over 200 years ago, but I believe they were truly written for us today. He taught:
I learned a crucial lesson recently from my husband Frank. The other day, he was relaying to me what he’d heard earlier that day on a morning news program. Frank was angry and frustrated as he explained what each person said. “Then why are you watching it,” I asked, “how can you stand to listen to that?” “I have to watch it,” he replied. “I may not agree or even like what I hear, but I need listen to them, to know what they are saying and thinking. I need to try to understand them.” It’s far too easy to dehumanize people or to click off the TV when we don’t like what they are saying. But while we can click off our screens and close our newspapers, we can’t click off the people in our lives. We can’t turn our backs when our children want to speak with us. We can’t turn our backs when our spouses and partners, our siblings or parents reach for us. There is far too much at stake. It’s so easy to avoid difficult conversations, especially when we disagree with one another. Over the years, I have seen too many families torn apart by divisiveness, too many families ruined by misunderstandings and pain left unspoken. But we need to have those conversations, to engage even when it feels awkward or painful, and to banish the harshness with honesty and respect and patience. We need to make that call or open that door. And we need to open our hearts to one another even when we don’t know quite what to say. I continue to think of that monk with only two words to say every ten years, and I wonder if we only had two words to say, what would ours’ be? What would we say to our children? Our spouses and partners and friends? What would we say if we had to choose each word with intentionality and care, if we had not one word to waste? Would we use our precious words to complain? To gossip or make small talk? Or would we share words of love, or of concern or compassion? What would we say to our siblings or our co-workers? What would we say to our parents? And what would we say to ourselves? Because often the harshest words we have and the worst kind of language we use, are the words we tell ourselves. And so the healing begins in our own hearts tonight with the most loving and compassionate words we know.