Double Negatives and the Crisis of Moral Leadership

According to Dictionary.com, a double negative is defined as a “syntactic construction in which two negative words are used in the same clause to express a single negation.” I never thought I would start a sermon with an introduction to the “double negative.” Then again, I never thought I wouldn’t start a sermon with an introduction to the “double negative.” But here I am, because “eileh ha devarim,” these are the words, odd though they might be, consuming us in this moment.

Eileh ha-devarim, “These are the words,” begins our portion, Parashat Devarim, referring to the words of Torah Moses is about to share with the people Israel. But reading this opening phrase during this particular week, a week so desperately fraught with discussions over words spoken and not spoken, and suddenly this text, so concerned with words, speaks to us in ways we could never foresee.

This past week, President Trump appeared at an unprecedented press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin. As he spoke, the world watched, waiting, with baited breath, for words of reproof or rebuke for the Russian autocrat, or at least words of admonition towards a regime that has proven a hostile actor in the world. And yet, to the utter shock of nations around the world, such words never came; they never materialized.

 Eileh ha devarim, these are the words that were tragically unspoken, these are the words we did not hear. Where was the censure? Where was the condemnation? Where was the regard for probity, morality, and justice?

Jewish tradition teaches that if we withhold our words, or rather, if we stay silent on matters of moral urgency, we, in turn, demonstrate our acquiescence to such actions. We become complicit actors in the crime. As Rabbi Judah Loew, the Maharal of Prague wrote, “While a person may be individually pious, such good will pale in the face of the sin of not protesting against an emerging communal evil. Not only will such piety not avert the impending evil, but such a pious person will be accountable for having been able to prevent it and not doing so.”[1] We have a moral obligation to use our words in the face of wrongdoing. We have a responsibility to speak out against corruption and fraud.

But our president did not speak out. He did not raise the alarm for the world to see and hear. He did not refuse his hand or withhold words of honor. Rather, in a bizarre display of curious and inexplicable camaraderie, our president praised his Russian counterpart unreservedly. And suddenly, the words we expected to hear were summarily replaced by words we never could have imagined hearing: sweeping dismissals of American intelligence; incredulous exonerations of Russia and Putin, and bizarre proclamations of admiration for Putin’s strength and power; all this from the president of the United States, the symbolic exemplar of freedom, democracy, and moral rectitude the world over.

Eileh ha-devarim, these are the words, riling us as a nation. These are the words keeping us up at night. Yes these are the words we are struggling to comprehend.

Judaism emphasizes that speech is a gift, and words have power. When God created the world, God did so through the power of speech, proclaiming a wish: “Let there be light,” and behold, there was light. And when God created humanity, God endowed us with speech and wisdom, separating us from the rest of the animal order. Words were given so that they would be utilized, to create, empower, and embolden humanity. Words facilitated communities, which in turn, facilitated cities, which in turn facilitated the most resplendent civilizations. Words enabled us to scale the highest intellectual heights and to soar on wings of boundless ingenuity. Words gave us opportunities we never could have imagined.

Eileh ha Devarim, these are the words that set the world in motion and ignited the flames of human creativity. But where there are flames, there is fire.

Our Tradition explains that we must guard our speech with a vigilance unmatched, knowing that our words have untold power, to move people, to change them, to lift them up but also, to knock them down. Words can heal, but so too can they wound. Words can unite, just as they can bitterly divide. And as King Solomon stated in Proverbs:“life and death are in the hands of the tongue;” words can give life, just as they can take it away.[2]

Eileh ha Devarim, these are the words God has entrusted to us, words that pulsate with power and potential, to both raise up and tear down. Therefore, we must take extreme care when we speak.

And for that reason, when we pray, we implore God to help us tame our tongues: “Elohai nitzor l’shoni me’rah, u’sfatai medaber mirma”: “Oh God, guard my speech from evil and my lips from deception.” Help us to know when to speak, how to speak, and why. Teach us how best to train ourselves, to offer the right words, at the right time, for the right reasons.

If only our leaders and our heads of state would do the same with their words.   If only they would strive for sincerity and take upon themselves the very same seriousness of intention that is modeled in our Tradition, the world would be a very different place.

But, instead, we find ourselves parsing double negatives. These are not the words we desire. Neither are these the words we deserve.

Some say that the phrase “Eileh ha Devarim,” “these are the words,” refers to Moses’ desire to not only speak words of Torah, but to EMBODY words of Torah, to actually be Torah.[3] We must do all we can to further Moses’ vision, to perpetuate a world where the words we speak reflect our highest values and our most cherished principles. We must strive to raise the level of discourse in this country and to hold those speaking on our behalf accountable for truth, for morality and for integrity. And we must cling to the notion, with every ounce of strength we possess, that the words we speak matter, that substance matters, and that honesty and sincerity matter. As these ideas thrive in Torah, so they should thrive in life.

Eileh Ha Devarim, these are the words we inscribe upon our hearts today, for the sake of the world we face tomorrow.

[1]Rabbi Bradley Artson, “No Neutrality: Silence is Assent.” https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/no-neutrality-silence-is-assent/

[2] Proverbs 18:21

[3]Arthur Green, The Language of Truth: The Torah Commentary of the S’fat Emet (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1998), 285.

About the Author
Sara Sapadin is a rabbi and mother of four. Ordained by HUC-JIR, Sara currently serves Temple Emanu-El in New York City as an Adjunct Rabbi. Sara has written for a number of Jewish publications and is also a proud contributor to The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate (CCAR Press).
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