Words can hurt, yet words also have the capacity to heal. For congregational rabbis, this time of year is focused primarily on the power of words as we assemble our thoughts and choose the appropriate themes to discuss during our holiday sermons.
There are always more worthy issues to address than time will permit, and so rabbis perform a kind of “sermonic triage”, limiting ourselves to only a few topics at the expense of others that are just as deserving. The contending issues are weighty indeed. Immigration, refugees, gun violence, climate change, anti-Semitism, Israel’s standing in the world, and the erosion of public trust. The list goes on and on.
But what about the spiritual state of our Jewish community? Are we Jews growing more disconnected from God, Torah, and from one another? In our toxic political climate, have we wounded others with our words? Have we been forgiving to those who have wounded us?
If there is one thing I hope to focus on in the year ahead it is to bridge the gaps that are driving us further apart from one another. As we become more entrenched and inflexible in our points-of-view, we don’t usually discuss our differences as calmly and respectfully as we should. Instead we use social media, slogans or bumper stickers, which often undermine any opportunity for meaningful discussion. All these things do is to proclaim: “I’m right, you’re wrong”.
Judaism teaches a different way. One of the great strengths of Judaism is that it developed as a religious tradition full of compromises, and valuing the opinions of others.
As Judaism evolved, different practices began to emerge in different communities, and we had to decide which ones were the best to follow. For example, when we hang a mezuzah we always hang it on an angle. Did you ever wonder why that is? Well, there was an argument between two rabbis whether to hang it straight up and down (vertically) or whether it should be hung horizontally.
There were cogent arguments to be made for each position. Ultimately however, the decision was made to hang our mezuzot on the diagonal. In other words, a compromise was hammered out between the two competing opinions. The inherent value of each was preserved. The clear lesson is that for there to be peace in any home (shalom bayit), there must be compromise and respect for the positions of others. A place where we can forgive those with whom we disagree.
It’s not a far stretch to see a small community or even an entire nation as one big extended family. And a society or even a small village is strengthened when there is community-wide shalom bayit — where we practice forgiveness; where we raise each other up instead of tearing each other down.
Debate can be wonderful but only when it is coupled with respect. That’s how we learn. And we Jews are not usually shy about sharing our opinions! At the same time, we must be on guard not to divide and conquer ourselves. We need wisdom in our speech and compassion in our actions. We must never forget how important it is to remain am echad, one people, despite our differences; and to forgive those who may not always be as gracious.
We are all “others”. We have all gained different experiences, and traveled along different paths while on life’s journey. My prayer is that in the year ahead we learn to value, care about, and even forgive another, while we work to uplift and strengthen our Jewish community. That way we can make 5780 a real Shanah Tovah — for all of us.
Now will a single sermon change the lives of those who listen? No rabbi has that expectation. But what we do hope for is that at least some of our words will resonate and make an impact. As rabbis, we hope that our words during these Holy Days will penetrate the soul, and inspire a life of meaning and of kedushah, holiness.