Monday, January 9, 2017

A New Year, A New Set of Words and Utterances

In my present daily learning of Gemara, (Talmud) I am going through Masechet Ketubot, which is so much about contracts and the words that we speak that turn into shared understandings with implications. There is a rather long and complex discussion about when spoken words are enough to seal a contractual understanding and when it needs to be confirmed by the written word, and finally, when signatories to the written words are needed. At various points in the discussion, the phrase “If X is said in such and such a case, it is as if nothing was said” appears, indicating that the spoken word may or may not be enough to seal an understanding. Intention counts and there is the usual mix of so many different elements in these discourses that show the importance of the honor of one’s word and the potential harm that ill placed words can do.

In the meantime, I also just completed reading a wonderful book entitled I Am The Grand Canyon by Stephen Hirst about the Havusupai Native Americans and their very long battles to hold onto and then reclaim ancestral lands, the empty promises made to them and the loss of faith in humanity that plagued them on so many levels. These people of the Grand Canyon, for whom the earth was their grandmother and grandfather were and are a simple people of the land whose relationship to all of the earth is taken very seriously and that relationship and its centrality to their identity was lost in a series of contracts and written agreements that ended up being “as if nothing was said” regardless of who the signatories were and the sophistication and precision of the language.

One could be tempted to make the point that this is a nod to contract lawyers who make sure that words are ever so carefully crafted so as to protect the rights and responsibilities of signatories whose names are properly affixed and witnessed. But alas, I had one of those some years ago that was as legally binding as the written word could be not to mention the verbal statement that “I had nothing to worry about” and yet the other signatory never paid me a hefty amount owed for professional services rendered, almost $90,000 to be specific. Clearly that hurt in a significant way. These words were treated by that party “as if nothing was said.” So much for contract law!

So intention is everything. Whether spoken or written, the question is do we intend to honor our word? And how important is it to do so? We constantly read in our Torah “G-d spoke to Moshe saying, Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them…” And then we read both this instruction and then the relaying of the message. Our commentators explain that this is important to insure that the words transmitted are indeed the words intended. This is also the case with the generational stories of the Havasupai. We are taught often that our words DO MATTER! In many communities, and I have written about this before, there are campaigns to watch our language and insure that we do not hurt others by those words – that is to be honorable in how we speak and to be sure that our words count and ARE NOT AS IF NOTHING WAS SAID.

I have always loved Meryl Streep. I think she is regal, immensely talented and a true mensch! Last night (as I watched the Golden Globe Awards) I was crying right along with her as she asked us to think about our words and be careful in using them. There is no need to go into the highly publicized reaction to her heartfelt speech and sincere words. I agree with the commentator who sometime ago asked both candidates for the Presidency if they thought they were good role models. We have seen many instances where our children do look up to people in important positions and want to emulate them. What type of imitation can we even hope to illustrate when the one who holds the highest position in our country and in the free world does not apologize for hurting people, is vigilant about attacking anyone who disagrees with him by demeaning them (or trying to anyway), and continues to not think before he speaks or tweets. This is NOT about politics; it is about basic decency minimally and accountability and the persona we present at most.

This week we complete the book of Bereshit/Genesis. The question has been posed as to why Yoseph is not properly honored as the fourth Patriarch, having held such an important place in our history. The answer suggested by many including Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is that for all of his leadership success, he missed the mark in intentionality of his actions and his words. Riskin says as follows: “.I believe it was the great Prof. Nechama Leibowitz, of blessed memory, who pointed out that Moses is the great fighter against injustice, whether it is perpetrated by Egyptian (gentile) against Hebrew (Exodus 2:11), by Hebrew against Hebrew, or by Midianite (gentile) against Midianite (gentile).” Riskin explains Yoseph did not get this – that we have to act in honorable and thoughtful ways in all that we do. That definitely includes our speech.

So as we embark on our lives in this new secular year of 2017 and for those of us who have already slipped in our “new Year Resolutions” let us commit to being resolute in this way: We will watch and take care with our words and insure that they heal and build and not hurt and destroy. Let our words show how we can be wonderful role models.

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