Obliged to use words responsibly

“It is their (the anti-Semite’s) adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words” Jean Paul Sartre wrote.  “The anti-Semites have the right to play. They even like to play with discourse, for by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert.”

Some today call it trolling.  As in when we accuse others of the very things for which we are culpable.  But Sartre’s point is more subtle.  The reason we need to be cautious about descending to the sewer-level of the hater or divider is because of their capacity to discredit our seriousness. 

This is a season when words hold weight.  One-quarter of the full list of sins for which we will seek atonement deal with speech.  Mockery.  Slander.  Words can degrade and eviscerate.  Rabbi Joseph Telushkin observes that unless you are the victim of physical violence, “chances are that the worst pains you have suffered in life have come from words used cruelly.”

But words can also soothe and console.   A grieving friend recently told me, “in the end, words are all we have.”  Words can reveal glowing goodness. They can be genuine, authentic, and heartfelt.

The Torah has a lot to say about hearts.  Hearts can be hardened.  They can be generously willing.  This week, we encounter the heart that turns away.  “I shall be safe by following my own willful heart” (Deut. 29:18).  God lovingly greets our return by opening our hearts (Deut. 30:6).  Self-reliance often requires a boost.

Sarah Hurwitz writes in Here All Along of striving to tune our hearts and minds to the Divine frequency.  She introduces the Jewish concept of ‘stealing the mind’.  Let’s say you’re sending out invitations to your housewarming party.  You discover your annoying co-worker will be out of town the day of the party.  You therefore decide to send her an invitation.  You think she’ll feel good about being included, even though you know you won’t have to deal with her presence at your party.  This is ‘stealing a person’s mind’ because it leads them to feel indebted to you when they really are not.  And it is wrong.

What’s at stake today is much more grave.  Callous hearts are willfully defiling language, bringing about a kind of moral vandalism.  In the face of reckless claims, may we reclaim the dignity of words in order to affirm our seriousness.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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