Tuesday, April 1, 2014
Abracadabra – The Power of Our Words©
Rabbi David Baum, Shabbat Tazria, March 29, 2014/27 of Adar 5774
I saw a strange scene that I would like to show you. A lawyer, Stanley Cohen, wearing a kafiya, making a comment after his client, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, Osama Bin Laden’s son-in-law was convicted conspiring to kill Americans and other terror charges. Mr. Cohen stood outside of the court room and this is what he had to say: “It’s not about words, it’s not about association, if you want to turn around and indict people for words, there are about 270 congressmen who have said some pretty incendiary things, maybe we should start there.”
What exactly did Abu Ghaith do?
The day after 9/11, at Bin Laden’s request, Mr. Abu Ghaith issued the first of a series of videotaped statements that helped Bin Laden spread his global message of terror, energize Qaeda fighters and recruit new ones. Abu Ghaith became Bin Laden’s spokesman, some might say a Goebbels ‘lite’ – spreading propaganda.
The jury found Abu Ghaith guilty of more than making pronouncements, but let’s just say they convicted him for being Bin Laden’s propagandist.
Is this ok with you? Is it a crime as much as planning an attack?
To find an answer, we have to look at how Judaism views how we use our words. This week’s parashah deals with two types of people – the person with Tzarat, a skin affliction, and a mother who has just given birth.
The mother who has just given birth goes through a separation process from the community, dependent upon whether she has a boy or girl. At the end of this process, the mother has to offer two sacrifices – a burnt offering, and a sin offering. The burnt, or olah, offering is understandable, as the commentator Abravanel says, “she gives it in order to draw close to her Creator, who has miraculously preserved her through the pain and danger of childbirth,” and the JPS explains that the sacrifice was often the first given before others to get God’s attention. It led up to the sin offering – why does she need to offer a sin offering? What did she do? Ramban, quoting the Talmud, says that she gave this sin offering because, as she is crouching in child birth, she exclaims publically, “I’ll never have sex with my husband again!” If the husband is lucky, it’s a false oath, so she has to atone for lying. But her condition is interesting – at this moment, no one can truly feel her pain – she is utterly alone. From personal experience, a husband cannot say to his wife on her delivery bed – I know what you’re going through, it’s going to be ok!
The Torah does not explain why the person is afflicted with Tzarat, but the Rabbis and commentators says that the metzorah is a person who has spoken with an evil tongue, ‘motzi shem rah’. This must dwell outside the camp until his tzarat is cured – he is also utterly alone. But they are alone in other ways as well – when others hear what they said about them, they are shunned. When you hear this person speaking ill, the listener must be thinking – ‘if they are talking bad about this person, what do they say behind my back!’ The evil tongue can break families and communities apart, making others lonely as well.
The evidence of lashon harah as the cause of tzarat comes from the story of Miriam. In Numbers 12:1, Miriam and Aaron speak against Moshe for taking a Cushite woman, but they also say, “Has the Lord only spoken through Moshe? Hasn’t He also spoken through us?” We see here that Moshe’s authority is challenged, and to set it up, it seems that they are trying to defame Moshe with this claim. Miriam is punished with tzarat and has to be removed from the camp for seven days. God singles her out, and punishes her not only with tzarat, but solitary confinement, loneliness– is this fair?
Words in Judaism hold a special significance. In the creation story, God doesn’t use His hands or tools to create the world, rather God speaks it into existence with words.
Have you ever heard the term, Abracadabra? It is actually an Amaraic word, the language of the Talmud, which literally means, ‘I create as I speak’.
Human beings are created Betzelem Elohim, in God’s image, therefore we too create as we speak!
When I read this parashah, I was reminded of a book I read by Kurt Vonneget called Mother Night. The book is about a man named Howard W. Campbell Jr. who is captured by Israel and put on trial for genocide. Mr. Campbell was born in America, but moved with his parents to Germany following WW1. His parents eventually returned, but Campbell stayed in Germany. He was well respected amongst the Germans, and he was approached by a U.S. Secret Agent to act as a spy for America against Germany before the war. Mr. Campbell was a well-respected playwright married to a German actress. Howard eventually agrees to do so, using his job as the broadcasting voice of the Nazi propaganda organization to pass on coded messages during his radio broadcasts through agreed-upon idiosyncrasies of his speech (pauses, mispronunciations, coughs, and so forth). Through his spying, Campbell saves many American and allied lives, and, in his way, helps bring down the Nazi regime.
But, there is a price.
There are many moments of truth for Campbell, but one comes from his father in law who has long suspected that Howard was an American spy. When Howard goes to say goodbye to him, the older man tells him that he now realizes that it doesn’t matter whether Howard was a spy or not.
“Because you could never have served the enemy as well as you have served us,” he said. “I realized that almost all the ideas that I hold now, that make me unashamed of anything I may have felt or done as a Nazi, came not from Hitler, not from Goebbels, not from Himmler – but from you.” He took my hand. “You alone kept me from concluding that Germany had gone insane.”
By spreading propaganda, he helps the Nazis with their mission – to galvanize a people to hate Jews and others. It wasn’t his intention, but he helped the Nazis just as much, if not more, than he helped the allies.
Campbell is eventually captured during the war, but the Americans bring him to New York to live in anonymity. He is eventually found by white supremacists who view him as a hero. Eventually, tortured by his past sins, he turns himself in Israeli authorities.
Just before his trial is set to begin, however, a letter from Frank arrives verifying Howard’s claims of being a U.S. spy. Howard is set free, but instead of being happy, he decides to hang himself “for crimes against himself.”
One of the most enduring quotes from the book is following: “We are what we pretend to be so we must be careful what we pretend to be.”
When I read this story, I think of political pundits who spew vitriol to get ratings (it’s funny, when you meet them in person, they are much more reserved and nicer). The listener doesn’t realize that, to a large degree, it’s an act.
Glen Beck recently made news for something he usually doesn’t make news for. I think it was one of the bravest and most open things he’s ever said, and I commend him for it. On Fox News. Meghan Kelly asked Beck to reflect upon his time at Fox News, and he answered:
“I remember it as an awful lot of fun and that I made an awful lot of mistakes, and I wish I could go back and be more uniting in my language,” Glenn said poignantly. “I think I played a role, unfortunately, in helping tear the country apart, and it’s not who we are.”
“I didn’t realize how really fragile the people were, I thought we were kind of more in it together,” he added. “Now I look back and I realize if we could have talked about the uniting principles a little bit more instead of the problems, I think I would look back on it a little more fondly. But that’s only my role.”
We live in a time when all of us have our own platforms to the world. We desperately want to be heard by many, so we post comments online, make bold and shocking statements that we may not fully believe, but because of them, we are heard. Many have online personas in the virtual world where we say things we would never say out loud or act in our day-to-day lives outside of the internet.
We do this because we are scared of being alone, of not being heard or not mattering to others. But when we choose to speak in evil ways, not just gossip of people we know, but of politicians and leaders, we actually set ourselves apart and make ourselves even lonelier. Less people trust us, and more people who might have been indifferent grow to dislike us.
Because of the internet, we have more power to spread the word and be listened to more than ever before.
But we must remember the word, Abracadabra, I create as I speak.
What kind of world are we creating when we speak with an evil tongue? Who are we distancing ourselves from? Who are we influencing with our evil words? In many ways, this is one the great issues of our time. But, there’s a response to this.
Today is a special Shabbat, Shabbat HaChodesh a parashah of unity – how do we bring slaves together who are in their little huts, and who have a vague connection maybe only to their tribe? Through marking holy time together with holy words. Perhaps it’s something for all of us to think about as we post our thoughts online, or write editorials, or speak to each other.
Let us realize that words are powerful, and it is up to each one of us to make a choice – do we want to divide or unite? To be want to be loved by others and spread love; or alone and hated, or worse, create hatred?
Let us commit to speaking holy words.