Rabbi Helen Freeman gave this sermon at West London Synagogue on Shabbat 2 August, 2014.
Some years ago, Rabbi Lionel Blue set up the first rabbinic retreat, something we still have to this day. Because it was a new idea in modern times, though the concept of a kallah, a study time away, goes right back to the academies of Babylon, he asked for help from a Catholic friend, Father Gordian Marshall. Gordian helped with the ideas of study and prayer services and all of those marvellous things until they had a really great programme. Then Lionel asked him if anything was missing from the classic clergy retreat. ‘Yes’, came the reply immediately, ‘we always include some silence.’ ‘Great’, said Lionel,’ we will have a lecture on the value of silence’. And there you have the difference between the Catholic and the Jewish approaches to religion in a nutshell. We Jews are in love with language and communication, we famously even talk with our hands, and so we are really not terribly good at silence.
Every rabbi will tell you of the struggle to have a silent prayer at the end of the Amidah. It used to be common for the organist to play softly during the silence, and certainly for the choir to come in very soon with ‘Oseh shalom‘. It is as if that time of introspection, of inner directedness, is somehow rather hard for us to cope with and so we would rather fill it with sound.
And that reminds me of another wonderful piece by Rabbi Lionel Blue that is in the High Holyday Machzor. There he talks about the endless reading and singing and prayers that fill up Yom Kippur. We ask endlessly for God’s compassion, for forgiveness of our sins as individuals and as a people. What we are less good at is being quiet enough to listen for God’s response, to allow the chance of an answer to our prayers. I think that Lionel Blue is pleading for we as a people in love with language, to use it a bit more sparingly and allow some spaces in between, some silence and thoughtful introspection.
There is a good tradition in Judaism for taking language and its usage extremely seriously. Today we begin the book of Deuteronomy, called in Hebrew Devarim. Devarim means words but also can mean things, something solid and concrete, as if to underline the fact that words can have a real life forcefulness that we ignore at our peril. Rabbi David, in thought for the week, pointed out a truism that has also occurred to me during this week. We all grew up knowing the saying ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.’ It’s a saying that is not true and is psychologically illiterate. Bruises on your body heal a lot quicker than bruises on your soul. Just ask the victims of prejudice, those black Americans against whom the n- word as used, those gay people who heard a word that defined them used to taunt and abuse, even my husband who remembers being called ‘Jew boy’ by the teacher at school and Christ killer by the other kids.
Words are powerful and forceful in defining a situation and we have to be very careful how we use them. We have to do so with conscious awareness and sensitivity. Otherwise our deepest life experiences are distorted. That is why we have the powerful haftarah from Isaiah on this Shabbat that precedes Tisha b’Av, when we commemorate all the tragedies of Jewish history.
This year, by an extraordinary coincidence, Tisha b’Av also commemorates 100 years since the outbreak of World War One, one of the darkest periods in recent history. Those that enlisted were told that it was ‘the war to end all wars’, and yet 20,000 British troops died on the first day of the battle of the Somme, the highest number ever. In many towns and cities, the so-called Pals Brigades enlisted, groups of friends from a factory or mine or local area. Many were wiped out in the Great War and their towns utterly bereft. So many young women lost their sweethearts and their chance to marry.
The war to end all wars brought some of the most cruel suffering, poisoning with chlorine gas and the shooting for cowardice of those who were suffering post traumatic stress disorders.The language of heroism, the excitement of a new adventure bore little resemblance to life in the trenches. The prophet reminds us that all the beautiful rituals and ostentatious prayer is meaningless and hateful to God without ethical action.
He has God say ‘your new moons and your special times, my soul hates; they are a burden to me, I can’t bear them. When you spread your hands, I will hide my eyes, when you pray a lot, I will not hear, your hands are full of blood.’ The demand to the people to concentrate on ethical action rather than fancy language is never more clear than in the vision of Isaiah. He says ‘ wash yourselves, make yourselves clean, put away the evil of your doings from before my eyes, cease to do evil, learn to do well, seek judgement, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.’
This prophecy from first Isaiah is over two thousand five hundred years old, and yet it is so powerful in its condemnation of hypocrisy and violence that it is read every year on the Shabbat before Tisha b’Av, to remind us of the darkness in the human soul that we have to face on Tisha b’Av, the destructive power within us, before we can come up the other side to the seven haftarot of comfort that lead us to Rosh Hashanah. It’s always combined with the first Torah portion from Deuteronomy, Devarim, that reminds us of the power of language. And this year, with the anniversary of the Great War and the ongoing crisis in Israel and Gaza, the use and misuse of language is a very up-to-date issue.
Part of the war has been a war of words conducted on Facebook and Twitter, each side fighting to present its own side as wholly right and the other side as wholly wrong. Those of us that use social media have been inundated, and sometimes shocked, by the use and abuse of language. I think of the constant accusation, including by those people who are involved in interfaith education, that Israel is involved in genocide in Gaza. I looked up the international legal definition yesterday from the 1948 convention. A crime can only be called genocide if it includes both the mental intent to ‘destroy, in whole or in part a national, ethnic, racial or religious group’ and the physical infliction of conditions designed to bring about that destruction.
The IDF goes to extraordinary lengths to try to avoid civilian casualties. That is not for one second to deny the tragedy of the loss of life in Gaza, but rather to suggest careful and thoughtful use of language to describe it. Language is powerful and can be hurtful and destructive. The use in pro Palestinian demonstrations of placards that suggest ‘Hitler was right’ or equate a star of David with a swastika diminishes public dialogue and intimidates the Jewish communities of Europe by conflating Jew and Israeli and by trivialising and abusing what was actually a genocide.
The Israeli public is also traumatised by the constant fear of having to run to a shelter each time the siren goes, the loss of so many young soldiers in a country the size of Wales when everybody knows someone in the military, and the ridiculous notion of being criticised for spending money on the Iron Dome to protect their citizens, rather than spending money on missiles to kill other civilians.
Yet, some of the Facebook posts on ‘all you need to know about Islam in five minutes’ are frankly racist and conflate Hamas and Islam in a really unhelpful way, just adding more fuel to the flames. Language and its use is a powerful tool that can become a weapon in a time of war when the temptation is to polarise into two opposite camps, ‘us over here’ who are right and misunderstood by a hostile world and ‘them over there’ who are terrorists or guilty of genocide or all sorts of other emotive language.
So how do we deal with this war situation? How do we avoid the polarisation that resists demonising the other side? The most important thing is to be aware of the real human beings on both sides that merit our compassion. That means the Israeli families that are frightened to let their kids play out because of the rockets, the endless nervous time in the shelters, the awful fear of losing a soldier husband or brother or father. When I look at the faces of the boys who have been killed in Gaza it breaks my heart, they are about the same age as my niece who is on summer camp in Wales right now.
But if we are not to fall prey to the labelling of all Gazans as terrorists, we need to empathise with the families there too, the ones who have no home, whose family have been killed by shelling, who have no water or food or anywhere safe to sleep. The innocent always suffer in war and that is why the timing of this Shabbat Chazon during this painful time for Israel and Gaza, as we prepare to commemorate World War One is so poignant.
It’s important for us as religious people to try and be part of the solution, rather than to make a heartbreaking problem worse. That means remembering that Pikuach Nefesh, the preservation of human life, is the highest mitzvah of all. We don’t want any more young soldiers to lose their lives. So the way we describe the events needs to be using non-polarising language, aware of its power to hurt and divide still further.
As I wrote this yesterday, the news came through of a possible kidnapping of an IDF soldier, following Hamas breaking the ceasefire. I have to say that my heart sank, but it’s vital to keep hopeful, to keep that distinction between Hamas and the civilian population and to affirm that language can be use to build and to heal and not just to hurt and destroy.
That hopefulness is a mitzvah in Judaism, a chance to affirm the values of life that enables us to look towards a more hopeful shared future. I began talking about the vicious nastiness that can be found on social media. Let me end with something quite extraordinary, a page called Palestine Loves Israel that is held by a Palestinian woman in Gaza who has connected in this way with Jews all over the world and seen that we too want her to be able to live without fear and in peace. She has of course been abused and accused of naïveté, but has been strengthened by building an online community that has enabled her to see things differently.
Language is important, hers and mine and yours, may we use this time of reflection over Shabbat and Tisha b’av to be conscious and sensitive and thoughtful in what we say.