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Words, Power and Choices

06/27/2017 02:02:24 PM

Jun27

June 20, 2017
by Cantor David Frommer

We’ve all heard the famous maxim that “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me,” and while we don’t know who actually wrote it, it doesn’t seem like the kind of saying that would come from Jewish tradition. That’s because Judaism has consistently taught, from its earliest days and constructs, that words do have power—both to create and to destroy. Western culture has long sought to elevate the importance of deeds over speech, with phrases like “talk is cheap,” or “actions speak louder than words,” but in Hebrew the word for “word” and the word for “thing” are the same: davar. This understanding of the closeness between the two is reflected in the very first chapter of Genesis, when God literally speaks the world into creation—no physical assembly required. In Proverbs, ancient wisdom literature teaches that “Life and death are in the hands of the tongue,” and the Talmud compares the damage of evil speech to that of murder.

Our parsha this week is Korach, in which the title character attempts to lead a rebellion against the authority of Moses and Aaron. The Torah tells us that Korach was aided in his initial challenge by two hundred and fifty chieftains of Israel, and that after his death, his actions were defended by “the whole Israelite community.” Many rabbinic commentators sought to explain this popularity through his powers of speech. According to a midrash quoted by Rashi, Korach gathered the whole community against Moses and Aaron “by means of scoffing language: that whole night he went round to all the tribes and tried to win them over: ‘Do you really think that I care for myself alone? It is only for all of you that I have a care!’ — until in the end all of them submitted to his persuasion.” It was Korach’s words, according to the rabbis, that metastasized the manageable complaints of a few into the dangerous agreement of the many.

The arrival of Parshat Korach in our annual cycle of Torah readings felt particularly timely this week, when I came across the following headline in the New York Times: “Guilty Verdict for Young Woman Who Urged Friend to Kill Himself.” For those of you not familiar with the story, Conrad Roy III and Michelle Carter, two teenagers with histories of depression, dated for two years in a relationship that mostly existed over text message. When Roy confided to Carter that he was thinking of committing suicide, she encouraged him and suggested he poison himself with carbon monoxide. On the day of his death, as the fumes filled the cab of his truck, Roy jumped out and made a final phone call to Carter, who was thirty miles away, to tell her he was having second thoughts, but she ordered him to return to the vehicle, where he was later found dead. The juvenile court judge, focusing on Carter’s instructions, found her guilty of involuntary manslaughter, punishable with up to twenty years in prison.

The verdict has created a firestorm of controversy and is likely to be appealed, and while this is not the place to debate its legal merits, the question of whether the decision is aligned with Jewish values is certainly appropriate. Given that Korach’s followers were punished for their evil speech when the ground they were standing on “opened its mouth and swallowed them up,” one might conclude that even two-decades of prison time would be a relatively benevolent sentence. Certainly, as we have seen in just a few of many possible examples, Judaism believes that words are a powerful force akin to something like electricity—impossible to see or touch but capable of tremendous benefit or destruction, depending on the circumstance. The rabbis who considered gossip a form of murder seem like they would have agreed with the idea that a person could be convicted of manslaughter for text messages or phone calls.

And yet, as deeply as Judaism respects the power of speech, our religion has remained even more committed to the fundamental principle of personal responsibility. It can be argued that the entire purpose of a Jewish life is summarized in the charge God gives each of us in the Book of Deuteronomy: “I have set before you today life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, that you may live.” Every Shabbat morning we close the Torah service with the words of Lamentations, “Hashiveinu Adonai eilecha, v’nashuva,” “Help us return to you, God, and we will return.” Choosing the right path in life is not always easy, but with the help of God and our community, Judaism believes we can make the right choices.

There’s no question that Michelle Carter’s behavior violated any number of Jewish principles regarding the dangers of speech and the sanctity of life, but explaining Conrad Roy’s suicidal choice as the result of her encouragement is as Jewishly impossible as explaining a soldier’s killing of an innocent as a result of his just following orders. Speech is indeed powerful, but Judaism teaches us to be equally strong in our commitment to justice, our charity in judgment, and our accountability for our actions. To the extent that we are mentally able to choose, we are responsible for the choices we make—including how we respond to others. Perhaps that saying about sticks, stones and words is more Jewish than it might have seemed after all.

Tue, November 21 2017 3 Kislev 5778