This isn’t what I’d intended to write on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, but -
Yesterday, as I was discussing the news with his parent, a child came on the line: ‘I don’t want deaths…after Jo Cox…No more deaths, will there?’ He was crying. I’ve heard nothing like this before. I hear the fear.
I am shocked and frightened at the abuse to which MPs and public servants, especially women, are subject, and at the derision directed worldwide at the guarantors of liberty, our independent judiciary and free press.
Verbal violence doesn’t only provoke physical violence. It turns threat, hatred and contempt into a form of culture; it uses them as tools for identity creation. Neither the UK, the US nor Israel or anywhere else must go that way. Life and the world are too precious.
Judaism has long appreciated the power of words: ‘Tell it here and it kills in Rome,’ warns the Talmud about lashon hara, which could be translated today as ‘verbal incitement’. What would the Talmud say in the social media age?
So my prayer is for words of goodness, kindness and healing.
Words are energy. ‘God spoke and the world came into being’: words are the divine instruments of creation. We humans can’t make physical worlds with words. But ask a poet, a novelist: words are sacred, wonderful, beautiful, malleable. They form worlds within worlds which transform the way we see and feel this world.
Words are greeting, recognition: Shalom Aleichem: I notice you; how are you? They are companionship, friendship and solidarity. They push at the doors of loneliness; they ‘speak to the heart.’
Words are questions, attempts at understanding: What does this mean for you? How does your life feel, in your thoughts, inside your skin?
Words are the pursuit of truth. Words may be discursive, debating, incisive, inventive, argumentative, impassioned, outraged – so long as they are ‘for the sake of heaven’.
Words are exhortation: do what is right and just! Words are warning to depart from evil.
Words are gratitude and blessing: thank you for this fruit, this water. Thank you for this dawn, this dusk, this life.
Is this the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Which of us has never shouted, never spoken in anger, never intended to be hurtful, never told a lie, never put someone down, never let a racist, sexist, derisive, contemptuous word pass our lips?
Therefore, words are also apology: I said wrong. I misunderstood you. I hurt you. Will you accept my apology? Will you help me to find a better way to live together, – in our family, our community, our country, our world?
My prayer is that words like these should be our discourse, in public as in private.
But my prayer is also for what lies deeper than words: the listening on which they must be founded.
Help us listen, with our hearts as well as our heads, to what lies beyond the words and silence of those we love, and of those who turn to us, or to whom we should be turning.
Help us hear our ‘them’, our ‘that lot’, whoever they may be, with whom we may disagree viscerally but to whose realities we may have paid little if any attention.
Above all, help us listen to life itself, this living world, this wonder of rivers and mountains this terror of storms and droughts, so that we hear the urgent need for protection and restoration.
Then, out of that listening, may be find the words and commit ourselves to the actions of healing.
That is my prayer, which I address to myself, and you, and everyone, and God.