פרשת בא, תשפ״א
Parshat Bo, 5781
by Rabbi Sydni
Saturday, January 23rd, 2021
May Our Words Be Acceptable to You
At Wednesday morning’s Presidential inauguration, when Andrea Hall, a veteran Fire Captain, recited the Pledge of Allegiance in English and American Sign Language, she began the ceremony with a tone of welcoming for all, regardless of physical ability. When Jennifer Lopez recited that same Pledge of Allegiance in Spanish in the middle of her performance, she reinforced the tone of universal welcoming, regardless of native language or nation of origin. Although many watching already knew that Kamala Harris was the first female, African American, South Asian American Vice President, she was announced as such as acknowledgment of the diversity of genders and cultures not only present but respected enough in this country to serve in our nation’s highest reaches of government. And while our 46th President Joe Biden could have focused his speech on his campaign success and on his policy goals, he chose instead to proclaim unity, regardless of political affiliation, saying: “I will fight as hard for those who did not support me as for those who did.” Throughout Wednesday’s inauguration ceremony, unity was the theme in both the words that were said and in the fashion in which they were presented. These words screamed welcome, and just for a moment, we were beckoned to put policy opinions aside and feel at home in our own nation, at home among neighbors.
While most of us have never spoken at a presidential inauguration, we do often find ourselves in high stakes situations centered on words, and in these situations, we often have difficulty finding the appropriate thing to say. In the conclusion (or coda) to the Amidah, we ask God for help with the change and support we can offer our world through awareness in speech. The Amidah’s closing meditation begins and ends with lines that set intentions for our words going forward:
אלהי נצור לשוני מרע ושפתי מדבר מרמה, ולמקללי נפשי תדם ונפשי כעפר לכל תהיה.
My God, keep my tongue from evil, my lips from lies. And to those who would curse me, let my soul be silent. And let my soul be as dust (let me be humble) before all.
יהיו לרצון אמרי פי והגיון ליבי לפניך ה׳ צורי וגואלי
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, my Rock and my Redeemer.
We have been created with the freedom of speech, the freedom to form relationships through deep conversations, to express our opinions and ideas. And yet, our liturgy highlights our need for true intention and deliberation in that speech. Our words have the ability to create evil, to spout lies, to reveal more than is appropriate or helpful at one particular moment in time.
But as we were inspired to dream on Wednesday, our intentional, inclusive speech can also create relationships and communities of trust, fairness, goodwill, and benefit to all those who take part. If we use it wisely, our speech has the power to invite rather than to exclude.
I cherish Herbert J. Taylor’s words, Rotary Club’s 4-Way Test, as highlighted in the Shreveport Times by our very own Curtis Joseph this past week, as a framework for intentional speech: “Of all things we think, say, or do, (1) Is it the truth? (2) Is it fair to all concerned? (3) Will it build goodwill and better friendships? (4) Will it be beneficial to all concerned?” Every single time we speak, we have the opportunity to evaluate ourselves according to this 4-Way-Test, making certain that the words we say invite rather than exclude.
Is it the truth? When we speak or write, have we done the research to know that the facts we are sharing are legitimate? If the sources we’re citing are biased, have we identified that bias? If not, let us save our speech for when we are more knowledgeable, more confident. When we share falsehoods, we run the risk of others believing us and sharing those as well. We weaken our own integrity, when those who once trusted us find that they no longer can.
Is it fair to all concerned? When we speak, are we acknowledging everyone in the room, without assuming knowledge about anyone in the room? Having lived in Shreveport for a year and a half, I have already been in multiple scenarios in which I was hurt by speech that did not acknowledge me. Every time an interfaith or secular meeting begins with an invocation or ends with a benediction here, there’s that question - will they or won’t they say his name? What happens if I don’t close my eyes, if I don’t say Amen at the end because I don’t share their faith?
At the Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast in 2019, the keynote speaker screamed a prayer for salvation for every person in the room, using language and tone that brought dozens up out of their seats, hands waving in the air. While it may have been a wonderful prayer meeting for the evangelical Christians in the room, we at the Jewish Federation table did not quite know how to react. We were the only ones not standing by the end, not applauding. Whether because of our Judaism or some other aspect that makes us uniquely who we are, so many of us listening today know how it feels to be branded as “other” just through some words.
We, too, are just as much in danger of using exclusive speech as that keynote speaker, but we can avoid that othering through basic changes in language. As not every couple is married or plans to be married, when speaking in a group setting, instead of “husband” or “wife,” we can use the language of “partner” or “significant other.” Not everyone in the room may even identify as “man” or “woman,” although we are all “people” - see, a simple fix! Chances are, not “everyone knows” about a particular Jewish practice, and not “everyone has experienced” a particular life cycle event, but “some” or “many people” may know. Our particular Jewish community, one composed of people from an incredible swath of backgrounds and identities, can be a fantastic testing ground for the practice of inclusive language. In this Jewish community, we can practice the clear notion that in order to build our team, we need to speak with language that welcomes both current and potential team members. So many of us know the discomfort of a half welcome, of being invited into a space and then ignored by those who control that space. We, who know that discomfort, are the ones to model speech that celebrates and welcomes.
Will it build goodwill and friendships, and will it be beneficial to all concerned? Before we speak, before we send a text message or post on social media, we must ask ourselves of the potential consequences of our speech. Might our words be taken as intrusive or insulting? If so, how might we reform our language into something inquisitive, and ultimately, productive instead? Of course, dissent, disagreement, and anger can be productive, and yet, we can voice compassion behind our frustrations. When we back up our statements with reason rather than name-calling and accusations, we can bolster rather than crumble our most important relationships. Just imagine, when we’re speaking, that each and every person we mention, whether a public figure or a close friend, is right there in the room, listening to what we have to say. How might that change the manner in which we speak and the sensitivity that we exercise towards those involved?
I am not advocating for silence, and I am not advocating for ignoring or downplaying injustice. As Jennifer Lopez called out in the middle of her inauguration performance, “Let’s get loud!” But if we yell alone, our voices don’t carry so far; when we call out, we must keep enough compassion in mind that others will want to join our cause, that others will not be turned away.
On Wednesday, we witnessed a series of beautiful examples of speech as invitation rather than exclusion. For just a few hours, through intentional speech, we had the opportunity to envision a nation in which everyone has a role; everyone has a safe space in this nation. More subtly, we had the opportunity to envision ourselves speaking with enough grace and purpose to close the chasm of division wherever it may lie in our own lives, in our own relationships. Perhaps, more than anyone on Wednesday, poet Amanda Gorman showed us the power of intentional, optimistic speech and laid out for us the goals that we might achieve if we just use our words to heal rather than harm:
We are striving to forge a union with purpose, to compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions of man.
And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us,
But what stands before us.
We close the divide because we know, to put our future first,
We must put our differences aside.
We lay down arms
So we can reach out our arms
To one another.
We seek harm to none and harmony for all.
Yihyu l’ratzon imrei finu v’hegyon libeinu l’fanekha - Adonai tzureinu v’goaleinu.
May the words of our mouth and the meditations of our heart be acceptable to you - Adonai, our rock and our redeemer. Shabbat Shalom.