Mavet vechayim beyad lashon:Death and Life are "in the Hand" of" the "Tongue".
1st day, Rosh Hashanah, 2022
We live in a Messianic era. How do I know? In the past, when a Rabbi had to think of a good joke to introduce his sermon, he needed to pour over the books of Jewish humor just as hard to find a good joke as it was to find an appropriate quote.
Today, it is a whole new ball game. I go the the browser on my computer, type “ Jewish humor” into the “google” search, and wonder of wonders, ,miracle of miracles, out come dozens of sites for Jewish humor, humor neatly categorized by topic. Naturally, I followed suite.
What do Jews do after a long day in shule on Rosh Hashana, and then , afterwards, with a full heavy stomach from a good meal—they go to tashlikh, of course., to throw away a years worth of misdeeds and wrong-doing by taking bread and throwing it to the water. So, lo and behold, I found a series of one liners for tashlikh! Unfortunately for us, this year, the fountain on fountain is no longer there. We will have to suffice with throwing our sins into the sink in the hall at the back!
So the questions is asked: what bread is acceptable for Tashlikh?
One Richard J. Israel compiled a list of recommended breads for tashlikh, one for each type of misdeed: It’s a long list, of which I give a few:
For ordinary sins, use -- White Bread
For exotic sins -- French or Italian bread
For dark sins -- Pumpernickel
For complex sins -- Multi-grain
For truly warped sins -- Pretzels
For tasteless sins - Rice Cakes
For sins of chutzpah - Fresh Bread
For being ill-tempered -- Sourdough
And of course, for Rabbis who insist on old jokes to introduce their sermons, -- Corn Bread.
However, of all of them, I felt the site was missing one of the key foibles, misdemeanors, and transgressions which we do every day—sins of speech. After all, the Al Het and the Ashamnu are full of failings of the lips. I realized that our humorist did not do enough homework, so I have found, from an Italian Chef’s website, the right kind of bread to introduce my sermon with:
Piadina, a kind of flat bread, with corned tongue.
Bread with tongue is a food most appropriate then for our tashlikh service. There is a Rabbinic tale that proves my point:
Rabban Simeon ben Gamliel tells his servant, Tabbai, “Go to the market and bring me the best food. The servant returned with a tongue. The Rabbi then ordered, “Go to the market and bring me the worst food! “The servant this time returned, once again, with tongue. Rabban Simeon asked, “Why is it that, when I said “best food” you brought me tongue, and when I said worst food, you brought me tongue?“ To this Tabbai replied,” It is the source of good and evil. When it is good, then nothing is better, but when it is bad, nothing could be worse.”
Tongue, in Hebrew, is Lashon, which is the same word used for language, about which our Proverbs taught us: Mavet v Chaim beyad lashon (18:21)
Death and Life are in the hands of the tongue—- a very clumsy translation in the literal sense, or better, Death and Life depend on our words-- words can give life, and words can kill. It is with language and with our speech, that we create life or destroy life. Hence, my recommendation of Piadina bread with corned tongue for Tashlikh.
Language is at the foundation of what it means to be human. Perhaps the most blatant element distinguishing a human from an animal is the innate ability to speak. In Jewish thought, speech is itself identified with God. Rosh Hashanah, we recall, is associated with the creation of the world, and creation, from the Bible, is itself an act of speech:” Vayomer Elohim” And God said” Let there Be”. Ancient Israel never saw God—but we heard his voice, the voice of God at Sinai, the voice of God to the prophets. Even the building block of the universe, according to the ancient Rabbis, was not the atom, but the alef-bet—letters. The sounds that make up words are the building block of all that exists.
Our scholars taught us that words were deadlier than weapons. A knife or swrod, or even gun, could kill one victim, but a maliscious word of slander or gossip could kill three victims-- the object of the slander for one, the people who listened to and spred on the slander, and finally the one who issued the slander, for eventually, what goes around comes around, and all would suffer. With modern technology, that damage can be multiplied into the billions.
The power of the word, to kill or heal an individual or a group, or a nation is harped on constantly in Jewish sources.
The psalmist asks ”Who is the man who seeks life, loving the length of days, to see the good-"and he then answers the query. “ Netzor leshoncha mera”
Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking guile.” The principal is echoed n the concluding, personal prayer to the end of the Amidah- Elohai Nétzor leshoni mera. My God, keep my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking guile, and to those who stander me, let me give no heed.”
Where is the tree of life to be found? Proverbs claims, ”Marpe lashon"(15:4) מַרְפֵּ֣א
A healing tongue is a tree of life,
But a devious one makes for a broken spirit.
the softness of the tongue is the tree of life.
Centuries later, Ben Sin taught that “Many have fallen by the sword, but not nearly as many as have fallen by the tongue!“ (28:18)
He reminded us that honor and disgrace are ruled by the words of our mouths.
Malice of intent is not the only factor in choosing our words. There is malice of consequence, whereby, even though we mean no harm, we cause harm.
A Jew has to be exceptionally sensitive to the impact that words have
on the listener, especially at certain critical moments in life, Thus there is a debate between Hillel and Shammai: What does one say to the bride on the wedding day? Said Beit Shamai: We describe her as she is. If she’s ugly as the plague, we let her know. Said Beit Hillel-"Kallah naah vehasudàh". A graceful and charming bride no matter how she looks. He was concerned for the feelings of the groom, as well as for the bride, and for the future of their marriage, and he insisted that one should never tell his fellow that he has made a bad deal.
Now, who’s advice do you think I follow when I do a wedding? I get a lot of repeat business form friends of the brides, so you can guess whose side I am on.
Life and death are constantly under the rule of the tongue.
For this same reason, as Jews, we are not allowed to dredge up our fellow's past failures as a weapon. We have to relate to our fellow, Jew and non-Jew, as he or she lives at present.
Jewish tradition records a bad joke between friends that resulted in tragedy. One of the great figures in the Talmud, Rabbi Shimon Ben Lakish, began his life as a gladiator until he met Rabbi Yochanan, who trained him to be a scholar. Years later, they debated the status of certain kinds of swords and knives. Rabbi Yochanan made a claim, which Rabbi Shimon immediately corrected, based on his own professional knowledge. Rabbi Yochanan was upset having been proven wrong in a legal dispute, and blurted out, in a pique: The thief knows his thievery.
They began to argue, and , in short, Rabbi Shimon died of shame, and then Rabbi Yochanan died of sorrow.
What took place between two Rabbis of old is a common occurrence in all generations. Husbands and wives can argue, as can friends, or partners, and the relationship can survive the quarrel if it is done fairly. It is destructive, however, of any relationship, to dredge up old, long forgotten misdeeds and use them as weapons in the fight. Just as the two Rabbis died because of a misused word, so many a marriage or friendship has died.
The Torah specifically forbids the spread of gossip- -Lo telech rachil beamkha--You shall not go about as a tale-bearer among your people. Immediately following it, we are told--Do not stand by as the blood of your brother is spilled--the implication being, that tale-bearing is as dangerous as murder, and must be stopped.
It was at one time, an especially disasterous activity, as Jews would spread rumors of activities of others Jews to foreign rulers, under the ancient Romans, and later, in Spain of the Inquisition, and in our day, the former Soviet Union . For that reason, in the daily Amidah prayer, we repeat, morning and afternoon and evening, U’ l ‘malshinim al tehey tikvah-as for slanderers, may there be no hope.”
What should we do, however, when we are on the receiving end of an insult? Words can hurt me, despite that children’s rhyme about sticks and stones can break my bones.
The ancient sages had a saying, which we could easily adopt for ourselves
“Who shall be compared to the sun in the sky shining brightly? Those who are
insulted, but do not insult, those who hear abuse, but do not abuse in return (Shabbat88 b).
Maimonides elevated it into a standard of Jewish law: Yihyeh min hanirdafim :Be among the persecuted, not the persecutors, be among the insulted, not the insulters.
If the ancient petition at the end of the Amidah that I quoted were written today, it would go:
Elohai Netzor Etzba sheli me-ra:
My God, keep my finger from evil , off the send button on my phone and if I receive a message that hurts, may I erase it quickly before I hit reply.”
At this point, you are all probably very frustrated. Rabbi, you have taken all the fun out of life. Back-biting, slander, innuendo, rumor-mongering—aren’t these the spice of life? Why the concern?
I have spoken on this before, I know, that we live in a world that is completely unfiltered ever since the introduction of social media. Most of you, like me, are still in the old world of the cave-man—we think that Facebook is cool. It’s passe’. So is Twitter old school- Elon Musk can save his $40 billion investment. Instagram will be out.Now its TikTok, which will soon be replaced by something else. On TikTok, people post short short video clips , which can be cute. But it is also the main source of news by young people who don’t have the filter of experience to realize they are being played for fools. And Tik Tok is now the latest iteration of misleading, false information, or misinformation. They are being played and manipulated, left and right, up and down. Our gullibility , our eagerness to believe without investigating is used against us by business, politicians, national and international states and organizations.
If this is happening on the macro end, it happens, even more poisoned, on the personal, micro end. Personal bullying, entrapping, shaming, leading to severe psychological damage and even suicide, we know.
So, here is the power of words( especially in the form of cute videos) to shape and lead people into deadly dead-ends.
You see how I can come to the conclusion that mavet vechayim beyad lashon-death and life are in the power of our speech, our words. With the right word, we can be God-like, we can create, we can fashion and shape, we can build up spirit and give love and friendship, create peace. Or, with the wrong word, we can bring anger, hatred, dissension, death. We believe, as Jews, that we are always given the choice.
We always have the power to choose. As that servant, Tabbai, brought his Rabbi the good tongue and the bad tongue, so we can choose between the good word and the evil word.
I think the most beautiful answer for language in our day was written six hundred years ago by a simple Jew of the town of Mayence, in the Rhineland, who left his children with this message, it is a classical Jewish message, to the nature of language and our words. After all, what is always most modern is what is timeless :
“I earnestly beg my children to be tolerant and humble to all, as I was throughout my life. Should cause for dissension present itself, be slow to accept the quarrel; seek peace and pursue it with all the vigor at your command. Even if you suffer loss thereby, forbear and forgive, for God has many ways of feeding and sustaining his creatures. To the slanderer, do not retaliate with counterattack; and though it be proper to rebut false accusations, yet it is most desirable to set an example of reticence. You yourselves must avoid uttering any slander, for so will you win affection. In trade be true, never grasping at what belongs to another. For by avoiding these wrongs, -scandal, falsehood, money-grubbing-- men will surely find tranquility and affection. And against all evils, silence is the best safeguard."
How beautiful God’s act of creation will be, when we, as God’s partners in creation, use the divine power of speech to heal and unite. Then, we will truly be inscribed, all of us, in the book of life. Amen