Religious Life

Words of Hate. Words of Hope.

Words of Hate. Words of Hope
Chayei Sarah
25 Cheshvan 5779 | November 3, 2018
Rabbi Alexander Davis

“Come in. Why do you remain outside?” Lavan said. “I have made ready the house and a place for the camels.” So, Eliezer entered the house, and the camels were unloaded. Lavan gave the camels straw and feed and brought water to bathe his feet. But when food was set before Eliezer, he said, “I will not eat until I have spoken.” Lavan said, “Then speak.” (Gen. 32:23-25).

In a parasha called Life of Sarah, a parasha that features the Torah’s first burial and Isaac finding comfort after the death of his mother, I want to focus for a moment instead on camels and water and straw. Why? Because as I’ll show you, this passage contains a critical message for us in the aftermath of a tragic week and a lesson we should take with us davka into this coming week.

Eliezer, Abraham’s servant has travelled back to Abraham’s homeland to find a wife for Isaac. He met Rebecca by the well and made his way to Rebecca’s father’s house. There Lavan welcomed him into his home, provided food for his cattle and water to wash his feet. And before they ate, they spoke.

It is the very ordinariness of this passage that makes it noteworthy. It is the seemingly superfluous details of this everyday interaction that draws our attention. The 4th century sage, Rabbi Acha, explained: “The mere conversation of these men is more beautiful than the laws of Torah given to the Israelites.” Did you catch that? The talk of Abraham’s servant is more significant than the laws of Moshe.

Rabbi Acha explains how he came to this conclusion. This chapter dealing with Eliezer and Lavan goes on page after page. The conversation is not only recorded but repeated. On the other hand, in the Book of Leviticus, one law dealing with the purity of a reptile, is derived from a single letter in the Torah (Midrash Rabbah – Bereishit 60:8).

I won’t go into detail about that law. Ask me about it over kiddush. The point is, that here we have a commonplace conversation that takes up many columns in the Torah whereas a law is learned from just one letter. About that discrepancy, Rabbi Acha remarks, yafe sichatan shel avdei batei avot m’toratan shel banim. The conversation is more precious, more beautiful, more significant than the law.

Why is that?

Remember the setting. Here we have Eliezer and Lavan meeting to talk about the future, about Isaac and Rebecca. These two were not natural allies. Lavan was an idol worshipper. Eliezer represented Abraham who had smashed the idols of his father. And yet Lavan brought him into his house, welcomed him as his guest, provided food for his animals, washed his feet and cleaned his house of all his idols (Chikuni), all to make Eliezer feel comfortable. And then Lavan invited Eliezer to speak his piece. This hospitality and the receptivity, we are told, are more worthy of elaboration than the laws of the Torah themselves.

I am reminded of one of my favorite teachings by the Slonimer Rebbe. Why does the Torah begin with this kind of story? Afterall, isn’t the Torah a book of laws? And yet Genesis is devoid of such rules. Genesis, he teaches, is called Sefer Hayisharim, the Book of the Upright. It teaches positive character traits, respect, righteous behavior which are the very basis of the law. Im ein derekh eretz, ein torah. Sinai rests on a foundation of civility. Absent that, the laws mean nothing. For the people will be in no position to uphold them.

Yafe sichatan shel avdei batei avot m’toratan shel banim. The way we speak to and about each other is more precious, more beautiful, more significant than the law. Or said another way, long before the legislation, there must be conversation. And it must be yafe- honest, respectful, constructive, even beautiful.

How far we find ourselves from this principle. We live at a time when words are toxic and deadly. claims, “Words are not bullets. Social media posts have a body count of zero.” 11 families in Pittsburg beg to differ. As does the Book of Proverbs which teaches, “chayim v’mavet b’yad halashon, life and death are in the power of the tongue.” We know this well. Tomorrow is the English yahrzeit of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin. I was in Israel at the time. I remember the incendiary rhetoric that led to his assassination. No, the words were not the bullets. But there was no doubt that they energized the shooter.

For Jews, words are devarim. They are things. They are powerful enough to create and to destroy worlds. Words that embolden radicals, words that normalize hate, words that demonize the other, words that divide, words that polarize, words that demean, they have deadly consequences.

Nigel Savage, the head of Hazon, said it well this week: “the fault line now is not between Democrats and Republicans. It’s between those who strive to use language with honesty and empathy and a desire to make things better; and those who use language to inflame, incite, exaggerate and demonize.” 

It’s not just that there is a time to speak and a time for silence. There is a way to speak that lifts us up not breaks us down, that heals us not tears us apart. Such was the message of Tree of Life Rabbi, Jeffrey Meyers who spoke at a vigil saying, “We won’t let hate beat us down. But, how do you stop it? It starts with speech. Words of hate are not welcome in Pittsburgh. My words are not intended as political fodder. I address all equally. It starts with everyone in this room. Stop the words of hate.”

3000 years ago, the Psalmist asked, “Who loves life? Who desires a long life? And he answered, keep your tongue from evil, your lips from lies. Turn from evil and do good. Seek peace. Pursue peace.”

Tragically, ironically, these were the very words from Psukei D’zimra being chanted last Shabbat morning at Tree of Life synagogue when the gunman entered. They are our prayer this shabbat and in the days ahead.

Mi haish hehafetz chayim- the one who loves life.

Ohev yamim lirot tov- the one who desires a good life

N’tzur l’shonkha meira- must turn his tongue from evil

Usfateha m’daber mirma- and his lips from lies

Sur meira aseh tov- must turn from wickedness and do good

Bakesh shalom v’rodfehu- Seek peace. Pursue peace.