“A GENTLE ANSWER turns away wrath, but hard words stir up anger” (Proverbs 15:1).
“Gentle words bring life and health; a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit” (Proverbs 15:4).
This week, Jews begin reading Deuteronomy where Moses reviews the lessons given throughout the Torah.
The Hebrew name for this book is Devarim, which means “words.”
This comes from the first words of the portion, “And these are the words that Moses spoke to all of the people Israel.”
In his volume, “Day by Day: Reflections on the Themes of the Torah from Literature, Philosophy and Religious Thought,” Rabbi Chaim Stern said the theme of the first portion of Devarim is wisdom.
The wisdom of Moses’ advice and reminders of how to live a holy life are woven throughout Devarim.
So how do we show wisdom with our words?
As we watch public figures and ordinary citizens use their words to spread hate, falsehoods and anger against anyone they see as “the other” or with whom they disagree, it seems we have lost all inhibitions which keep our society civilized and compassionate.
The ability to be thoughtful and empathetic in our discourse is being lost in the desire to shout the loudest.
This gets us nowhere but into a state of constant anxiety and chaos.
“Your own soul is nourished when you are kind, but you destroy yourself when you are cruel” (Proverbs 11:17).
We have glimpsed an ugly underbelly in our society, and it is as if a log in a forest has been lifted and all manner of vile creatures have been let loose.
For the most part, these people are hurling only words, but they are hurtful, mean, bigoted words, full of cruel stereotypes, turning us against one another.
Proverbs 18:21 teaches us that “Words kill or words give life; they’re either poison or fruit-you choose.”
These incidents make people angry, and our dilemma is how we express our anger.
We don’t need more angry words, but a righteous anger which translates into action for good.
Righteous anger has brought an end to slavery, Nazi Germany, and has gained rights for women and racial, ethnic, LBGTQ and religious minorities.
In every case people put their words into action.
From Pirkei Avot, The Ethics of our Fathers, we are taught, “Say little and do much.”
The recent call for civility in our discourse indicates that people have become exasperated with the hate being spewed in full public view.
But civility does not mean being silent or not taking action.
There is a time to be silent.
Be silent when you don’t know the whole situation or the facts.
Be silent when your words will not improve the immediate situation, or when your inclination is to simply hurl insults.
However, we must make sure our silence does not condone evil.
Civil confrontation can make others uncomfortable, but it can be transformative.
Peaceful protests are civil responses of righteous anger.
History also teaches us that sometimes actual civil disobedience is needed to effect meaningful change.
The citizens who hid runaway slaves along the Underground Railroad were breaking the law.
As were the women who tried to vote before the 19th Amendment, the citizens under Nazi rule who hid Jews in their homes, the civil rights protestors who were arrested for sitting at a segregated lunch counter and worked for voting rights, those who occupied buildings or sat down in the streets to protest the Vietnam War, and the churches who have used their facilities as sanctuaries for people fleeing violence in their country.
All peacefully used their actions to bring about a world where compassion and mercy were more important than upholding unjust laws.
Ultimately we must learn to follow the injunction in Leviticus 19, where we are told to love our neighbor as ourselves.
And then, using gentle words and remembering the Golden Rule, we must let our speech turn into action to bring about a more just world.
We must listen to Abraham Joshua Herschel’s wise words, “Speech has power. Words do not fade. What starts out as a sound, ends in a deed.”
I pray that all our words and deeds lead to the repairing of our broken world.
Kein yehi Ratzon … may it be God’s will.
Issues of Faith is a rotating column by five religious leaders on the North Olympic Peninsula. Suzanne DeBey is a lay leader of the Port Angeles Jewish community. Her email is [email protected]