Words Matter by Rabbi Brian Leiken

Words Matter

Over the course of the last four years, I have aimed to be careful about entering the partisan political debate and have refrained from openly critiquing our president. I recognize that we have a diverse community with diverse opinions, and I have tried not to muddle important messages by directly naming the president or any other politician in what I have to say. I have tried my hardest not to enter the fray of partisan rhetoric that has so badly damaged our national dialogue.

As I have had time to consider the violence that swept through our capitol on January 6th and the potential for further violence in the coming weeks, I must name the president and call out his rhetoric. By speaking to a group of angry supporters, by encouraging them to “fight like hell” and specifically to “go to the Capitol”, President Trump threw gasoline on what was already a fire. After weeks of speaking a variety of mistruths about the election, the president used words that encouraged a violent uprising in which five people ultimately lost their lives.

Words matter. It matters what we say, how we say it and who we say it to. Our tradition teaches us that the entire world was created through the recitation of words. We also learn that the misuse of words leads to disasters. Words affect reality. They are the means by which we make sense of our world – and our leaders are in a position to use them in powerful and therefore, often menacing ways.

We are reading about Moses in the Torah right now – a leader who purportedly has a stutter and cannot speak effectively. Perhaps this disability ends up as a blessing for it forces Moses to consider his words carefully, and to recognize that rhetoric matters. Later in the Torah, we will learn that Moses briefly forgets this lesson. In a fit of anger, he calls the Israelites “rebels” and tells them that he alone is responsible for their redemption. For this, Moses is forbidden from entering the promised land. His career of responsible communication is undermined by a moment of lingual carelessness.

On Monday, we will be celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a leader who used words and rhetoric to transform our world for the better. Dr. King did not use language in divisive ways that fomented anger and encouraged violence. He used words to effectively paint a vision of a future where people could come together and overcome their separation. His rhetoric was able to usher in a new reality for our nation.

Unlike the rhetoric that caused such chaos last week, Dr. King’s words helped to fix a broken world. Let us take a lesson from leaders like him and use language to make a positive difference. Let us take lessons from leaders like him and use language to offer one another a vision of a future where violence and hatred have no place.

Words matter, and we should use them with such respect.

Elohai netzor, l’shoni mei-ra

God, guard my tongue from speaking evil…

Shabbat Shalom.

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