Friday, September 30, 2016
Using Our Words: Saying What We Mean and Meaning What We Say
Many times I have explained why TZEDAKAH (Hebrew word) is not the same as charity as these words come from two separate religious/cultural contexts. In the same way, defining GIBOR as hero can be misleading in a Jewish context and the full sense of KADOSH is not accurately captured by the word holy. So what? Who cares? I do, because I would not want to use words that are important and meaningful to collapse other traditions and belief systems that are meaningful to my friends and colleagues.
I love the breath and breadth of my life and the people in it. I am involved in a great deal of multi-faith initiatives and find it so wonderfully fulfilling. As I often say, there is so much that unites us, ultimately reminding us we share infinitely more than what may divide us. Many in the religiously observant world in which I live my life as a Jew disagree with me and think that I am engaging in building bridges that are not to be built. Such bridges of understanding and sharing are critical in our world today when those who take extremely narrow points of view are raising their voices louder and louder to try to drown out the rest of us who would prefer to maintain the integrity of our individual identities while forging meaningful connections with others who have identities of their own of which they are rightfully proud and to which they are appropriately dedicated. As I often say, there is so much on which we agree, and simply put, we can agree to disagree at appropriate points. But this is generative of meaningful discourse, NOT leading to the intense lack of empathy and understanding we see in our world today too often.
During part of this past summer, I read Krista Tippett’s amazing book, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living. Among the important tools she identifies for good and constructive living are WORDS. You know, the most important tool of our shared trade of communication. How do we use words and do we use them to build and share or to destroy and build impenetrable walls? As I was reading through this wonderful set of conversations she shares that she was privileged to have with so many different people – of faith, political leanings, cultural backgrounds, and as many types of groups as you can enumerate, it was so apparent to me exactly how we must all think about our WORDS.
And then, the reality of the world in which I live strikes! How can I avoid the 24/7 exposure in these United States to the ongoing barrage of words that are meant to tear down, destroy and render so many as “the other” when I really had hoped we were so past that. Apparently, too many of us were so wrong on this account. The verbal bullying that is masquerading as a presidential election while we are trying ever so hard to sift through the diatribes and histrionics we are hearing in order to get to the real issues and support those candidates for various offices who are trying to do the same is horrifying and reminds me of WORDS so poorly used. It is easy enough to note that WORDS and SWORD are made up of the same letters; how sad that the former have turned into the latter. How do we keep trying to reverse this trend and heal what is breaking even further?
Throughout the Jewish days of observance of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur that are approaching, we are told to think about our actions, our intentions, and most certainly our WORDS. In fact in the confessional prayer of Yom Kippur, the misdeeds of words far outnumber any other type. We know from Proverbs/Mishlei “Death and life are in the hand (power) of our tongue (the words we use and say).” I see this playing out daily, inside of our communities of faith, amongst our various communities of faith, political beliefs and cultural identities, within families and so on.
Here is a thought. People often ask why we have to repeat the same prayers and the same script so much? Maybe it is because we say the words but WE DO NOT MEAN THEM or totally understand them and the ramifications of those words on our actions! Maybe, regardless of how many syllables the words we use have and how articulate we may be, we are not as sophisticated or evolved as we think our word usage indicates. In Krista Tippett’s conversation with Vincent Harding, who helped Martin Luther King Jr. develop the theory and practice of nonviolent communication, he says as follows when asked about the meanings of “civil” and “civility” and the degree to which they are present in our world:
“… [how can we learn] to have a democratic conversation. That is what we need. We are absolutely amateurs at this matter of building a democratic nation made up of many, many peoples, of many kinds, from many connections and convictions and from many experiences. And to know after all the pain that we have caused each other, how to carry on democratic conversation that in a sense invites us to hear each other’s best arguments and best contributions so that we can then figure out how do we put these things together to create a more perfect union…. For me, Krista, it also opens up the question of what it means to be truly human…” (p.51)
In the Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur liturgy, we are not supposed to just SAY the words of the prayers that are scripted, but insure that they are fully intentional, that they come from our heart and our innermost being – that which we share with all individuals who were created in the image of G-d. We say “I am sorry” and “Please forgive me” to each other and we promise G-d and ourselves “I will repent, I will return, I will do better.” Do we mean it – are there actions to reinforce our words? Without the actualization of these words into the deeds of our daily lives, what good are they?
I find that all people of faith have the capacity and the tools for such reflection. Each of us will aspire to those goals that are articulated as the ideal within our chosen faiths. While there are differences in terms of whether we do things because we are commanded to do them, such as a Mitzvah – NOT a good deed per se in Jewish thinking, but a commanded action because G-d says so; or whether we call G-d as the One and Only or recognize Jesus as G-d’s son or Allah; or tithe our earnings for whatever reason in our respective communities; I would hope that ALL OF US CAN REFLECT UPON OUR WORDS and use them to build ourselves and each other up and not tear down what G-d and so many generations before us have worked to build and give us as a legacy.
I wish all of us meaningful reflection on our words and their use in the appropriate seasons. For those of us in the Jewish faith, that would be now. Shanah Tovah Tikateivu.