by Rabbi Sydni
Monday, September 28th, 2020
With the Utterance of Our Lips - Intentional Speech in 5781
On Saturday morning, I spoke about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s use of words. Every document she wrote, every interview, and every memory gleaned from family and friends makes clear that she refused to waste words. At first impression, Justice Ginsburg was often seen as quiet, as she would wait to speak until she knew exactly what she wanted to say. She did not engage in small talk, and when tempted to speak out of anger, she strove to speak from the role of teacher instead. Everything she wrote and edited was as concise as possible; she knew that every word could mean something significant in her constant fight for justice. And that conservation of words granted her unprecedented success - Justice Ginsburg won five out of the six cases she brought before the Supreme Court as the general counsel to the ACLU in the 1970s, and when she was nominated to the Supreme Court in 1993, she earned her seat by a vote of 96 to 3. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s cunning, compassionate use of words radically expanded our nation’s definitions of equality and inclusivity.
Our Vidui, our confessional service on Yom Kippur asks us to reflect on the wrongdoings we have committed in speech in the past year. Al het she-hatanu l’fanekha b’vitui s’fatayim - for the transgression we have transgressed with the utterance of our lips. ּB’dibur peh - in the speaking of our mouth. Often, we speak before we think, forgetting to check whether our words are true, or more importantly, are even necessary at all. Today, we remind ourselves that some moments are made for listening rather than sharing opinions and ideas.
Al het she-hatanu l’fanekha b’vidui peh - with the confessions of our mouth. At times, when others are expressing vulnerability, we feel the urge to share our own experiences, rather than to hold space for a friend’s personal expression. We boast about or lament our own deeds, rather than offer congratulations or a shoulder to cry on. Often, our insights and advice are helpful, but first, we must embrace our modesty by asking ourselves what others need from us before we open our mouths.
Al het she-hatanu b’tumat s’fatayim - with unclean lips. We use derogatory expressions, we speak in stereotypes, and we freely discuss triggering topics because we believe that the people in this particular room could not possibly care. But we miss the individual to whose best friend that racial slur applies, we miss the individual who has worked each day to achieve normalcy with that hidden mental illness of which we casually mock, and we miss the individual who has been to war or who has been otherwise hurt by the abuse of which we speak casually. Even when no one in the room is directly affected by our unclean lips at one particular moment in time, our use of speech influences how those who hear us will speak to their friends and colleagues in times to come. Yes, what we say is vital to our relationships and our world, but what we actively choose not to say can be just as important.
Al het she-hatanu l’fanekha b’tipshut peh - with foolishness in speech. We cite an idea that we heard from a facebook post or a friend, without checking our sources. Let us look back to our discussion last week - let us wait to speak about facts until we have done our research. Both to prevent the spread of false information and to make it known to all that the words from our mouth are to be trusted, let us wait to speak until we know what we say is true.
Al het she-hatanu l’fanekha b’lashon hara - with gossip. We combine that foolishness in speech and uncleanness of lips to speak ill of others, whether or not we know their full story. We fail to consider how each story we share will spread, how each story will affect a family’s general well being and relationships within the community. When we are upset or concerned, let us instead approach the people who make us angry and express our hurt. In some circumstances, we may even need to break our ties with that person whose offenses we do not deserve, but lashing out against them behind their back can never be an option.
Al het she-hatanu l’fanekha b’siah siftoteinu - with the conversation of our lips. Every single day, we have conversations that show our best selves, and every single day, we have conversations that set us back a few notches. It takes a lot of effort to be fully conscious every time we open our mouths, post on social media, or put pen to paper. And yet, each year, with our Vidui, we remind ourselves of the words of Ecclesiastes (Kohelet), whose story we read over Sukkot: Et lahashot v’et l’daber. - There is a time to keep silence and a time to speak (3:7). As we begin this new year with a slate wiped clean, let us aspire to speak only when we are confident that we are saying something that matters, either to the person to whom we speak, to the change we need to see in the world, or to our own self-care.
A cautionary word lest we end with the notion that silence is our only safe option. Although we must refrain from hurtful words, the time to speak must occasionally include rebuke. As the Torah teaches, Lo tisna et ahikha bilvavekha. Hokheah tokhiah et amitekha, v’lo tisna alav het. - Do not hate your fellow in your heart, you shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and you shall not bear wrongdoing because of her (Leviticus 19:17). In this season of forgiveness, those who have hurt us must know how and why, so that they can avoid wrongdoing against us and others in times to come. As we strive towards the world of justice for which Isaiah pleads in our Haftarah, that justice must include speaking out against the societal practices with which we disagree. When we speak, we wield unimaginable power, to hurt and to heal, to damage and to build up. To express our love for God and for our earthly loved ones, we must not fear our power of speech, and yet, we must strive each day to stay conscious of how we wield that power.
Midrash Rabba speaks of a lesson that Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel’s servant Tabi teaches him: The Rabbi says to his servant, “Go to the market and buy me a good piece of meat,” so Tabi went out and bought him a tongue. Later, the Rabbi said to Tabi, “Go out and buy me a bad piece of meat.” Tabi went out again and bought him a tongue. The Rabbi asked, “Why when I asked you to buy me a good piece of meat, did you buy a tongue, and when I asked you to buy a bad piece of meat, did you again buy me a tongue?” Tabi replied, “Because from the tongue comes good, and from the tongue also comes evil. When it is good, nothing is better; and when it is bad, nothing is worse.”
This year, may we learn from the servant of a great rabbi, from a beloved Supreme Court Justice, and from all the times we have been hurt and healed by words, to pause and reflect before we speak. And for those of us who would rather not speak at all, may we find the compassion, the knowledge, and the courage to inspire us to use our voices in the year to come - for our loved ones, for our world, and for our own self advocacy. G’mar hatimah tovah.