Let’s Talk About the Power of Words

Between Us

Photo by Olivier Fitoussi, Haaretz.com

Here are three ways to Make It Yours this week:

  • Join with our community in prayers for peace as our family in Israel continues to face unthinkable terror. Read more
  • Mark your calendar for the international day of giving back to the causes you care about most, #GivingTuesday on December 2.
  • The Jewish Federation is looking for volunteers to reach out to community members and give them the opportunity to support those in need this year. Sign up today for the Winter Dial-a-Thons from December 2-9 in MD, DC and VA.

Too much blood, not enough words.

Earlier this week, we awoke to the news of yet another terrorist attack on innocent Israeli citizens. Two Palestinians, reported by their relatives to be “upset” at the false claim that Israel would be taking over the Al Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount, attacked Jews in the midst of their morning prayers at a synagogue in the Har Nof neighborhood of Jerusalem. Four died at the scene and a Druze policeman later died of wounds he sustained trying to stop the terrorists; several more were injured.

The usual words were uttered by Israeli Jews, some world leaders and many Jewish organizations, including, “shocked,” “brutal,” and “murder.” There were other words used as well, including, “heroic,” “revenge,” and “martyr,” all quotes from individuals living in the West Bank and Gaza, praising this horrific attack on innocent Jews in a house of worship. How is it possible that the same event prompts two such diametrically opposed world views? How is it possible that peace can come to a place where the opposites continue to grow further apart?

I wish I knew.

When I was in Israel several weeks ago, I spoke with several dozen Israeli young adults, some living near the Gaza border; others living in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Whenever I go to Israel, I speak with young adults because I want to hear enthusiasm and hopeful words about the future. I didn’t hear hope. I heard concern, cynicism, realism and fatalism, but no hope. That doesn’t mean there isn’t any, it just means I didn’t hear it. And after the news of this week, it is indeed difficult to be hopeful.

Words give voice to hope, and words destroy it as well.

This week’s parashaToledot, contains the famous story of the twins Jacob and Esau, and how Jacob, with his mother’s help, tricks his father Isaac into giving him the blessing reserved for the first-born. The juxtaposition of the two brothers, one “a skillful hunter”, the other a “mild man”, is striking – but not as striking as the parasha’s lesson on the power of words.

Once Isaac mistakenly blesses his younger son, I’ve wondered why he can’t just “take back” his words. Here’s an explanation of why: There is a story of a man, who shortly before Yom Kippur, consults the rabbi on how to atone for spreading gossip about his neighbor. The rabbi instructs him to take a bag of feathers and place one feather on each doorstep in the village. Mission completed, he comes back to the rabbi for further instruction and is then told to retrieve the feathers. He solemnly returns to report that the wind had blown the feathers all over the village and he could not collect them. The rabbi said, “Yes, that is the nature of our words. Once we have spoken them, we cannot take them back.”

Words of incitement, despair and hate cannot be taken back. These are extraordinarily difficult times for our brethren in Israel and may get worse before getting better. We must be outspoken in our support for the people of Israel, condemn terrorism and call for an end to the barbarity of attacking innocent Jews. On this, as a Jewish community, we can – and must – speak with one voice.

Shabbat Shalom,

Steven A. Rakitt, Chief Executive Officer  
[email protected]