This week I want to talk about words, and how they affect both us, and the world around us.
וַיִּרְא֣וּ אֶחָ֗יו כִּֽי־אֹת֞וֹ אָהַ֤ב אֲבִיהֶם֙ מִכָּל־אֶחָ֔יו וַֽיִּשְׂנְא֖וּ אֹת֑וֹ וְלֹ֥א יָכְל֖וּ דַּבְּר֥וֹ לְשָׁלֹֽם׃
“And when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of his brothers, they hated him so that they could not speak a friendly word to him.”
Rashi says that this is to their credit, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” However, I am seeing a problem with this assumption and mindset. We seem to be in a world of increasingly concealed kindness. In fact, it often gets so concealed that we might assume it’s not even there. Not only are we seeing increasing hate in the world, which is certainly in itself a problem, we are seeing a decrease in the language of love.
According to the authors in a study in The Journal of Positive Psychology in 2012,
“Words like “love,” “patience,” and “faithfulness,” for example, as well as words like “humility,” “modesty,” and “kindness” have each declined in use by some 50 percent or more in the modern age, researchers have found as they survey the millions of books and written records that have become digitized. “Moral ideals and virtues have largely waned from the public conversation,”
Is there a connection between the decrease in these words and the increase of hate? I think there is. As in our Parsha, his brothers don’t start with wanting to kill Yosef, they start by not being able to speak nicely to him. We know from psychology that the words we speak alter how we view and interact with the world. In a phrase; if we speak of good, we feel good. When we feel good, we do good. And the inverse goes without saying. We have, with good intentions, muzzled our language away from a good path. In an effort to prevent religious zealots from controlling minorities, we pushed moral discourse out of the public sphere along with religious discourse. The article I read was from the perspective of a secular humanist chaplain (we can discuss that later) who has noticed himself that as we increasingly discourage religious language, we are losing those words that it encouraged. We also have the odd phenomenon of the religious becoming more and more indifferent to suffering.
Judaism’s contribution to the world has been ethical monotheism. We introduced many concepts four thousand years ago that led to our humanistic virtues today. Many Jews turned to idealistic political movements because of our values. Many of the foundations of communism for instance are directly taken from Torah. Even the consummate atheist Nietzsche stated in his book, The Joyful Science “Do not think that once you have eliminated religion, that reason alone will be a foundation for morality. Morals only have import from the religious skeleton of society.” To this effect, in 2014 a study was conducted on engagement with a religious community and the kindness of that person’s actions. THey found that regardless of belief, a person who engages with a local house of worship was 35% more likely to give to charity, more likely to find someone a job who needs it, more likely to help a stranger in need. One of the amusing conclusions of Rabbi Sacks on this study is that, “An atheist who attends synagogue will end up being kinder than a deeply believing person who does not.” But according to a 2016 pew survey what drives most people away from a synagogue or a church? It’s not belief, it’s harsh words. As the vocabulary of our society loses the language of love and morality, we see the replacements are from the language of hate and severity. The Talmud itself censors harsh speech stating that not only should we not murder, but anyone who uses unnecessary harsh language that causes a person to blush, has shed his blood and is a murderer!
In Bereishit, the Torah states that the world was created with words. Everything was dark until “Vayomer Elokhim, yehi or.” HaShem said “Let there be light”. And there was. Words are of supreme importance to us. The Talmud itself describes Torah as “black fire on white fire”. If we take this analogy literally, words are fire. If we harness fire properly, it is still, in our age, our most influential and important technology. However, as we know in our area, and with the recent instances in California, unharnessed, uncontrolled, fire is amongst the most destructive forces in the world. We also value fire in Judaism. We light candles for the start of Shabbat, for the end of Shabbat, for Yom Tov, we have a ner tamid in every shul. If, as the Hasidim illustrate, our souls are divine sparks, our words are our flickering flames. As we come into the festival of lights, may we remember that every word we speak lights the world around us. Will it be positive, providing light and warmth? Or will we burn, reckless and damaging. There is no middle ground. You will speak. What will you say?
Shabbat Shalom. Hanukkah Sameach.