The Power of the Voice

Erev Rosh HaShana 5777
Rabbi Gary M. Bretton-Granatoor

A few days ago, I was driving south on the FDR Drive in Manhattan. Traffic had slowed to a crawl. As I looked at the car in front of me, my eyes were drawn to a large bumper sticker, which read “TRUMP THAT BITCH.” Now I have seen scores of offensive bumper stickers in my lifetime, but this seems to have crossed a line – a line that has not just been crossed repeatedly of late, but almost erased in this political season. And so, I was drawn to the themes and lessons of this High Holiday season to try to find some guidance for us as we look inward during these Aseret Yamay T’shuva – the 10 Days of Repentance.

From the 8th century on, the evening service for Yom Kippur began with the Kol Nidre — a text that nullified vows that we have made in the past and were unable to fulfill. The text of the Kol Nidre has its roots in the Book of Numbers, which tells us that when a person makes a vow to God or swears an oath, that person shall not break the vow, and must do all according to the words of the oath. From ancient times vows and oaths held great power and one is warned repeatedly to consider well the power of the voice.

By the 5th century CE, there was a discussion in the Talmud as to whether or not one could be released from vows. The majority of the rabbis insisted that, on that powerful day of Yom Kippur, individuals be should be given the opportunity to release themselves from vows they were unable to keep in the past year, thus the Kol Nidre was created. Rashi’s grandson, Rabbi Jacob Tam, in the 12th century, revised the text of Kol Nidre and changed it to refer to vows that would be made in the future. Rabbi Tam recognized that with the coming Crusades, individuals would be forced to make life-changing vows in order to protect their lives. Certainly by the time of the Inquisition, our Spanish forebears knew that the only way to protect their lives and their faith was to renounce their Judaism publicly and practice their Judaism in secret, while publicly behaving as Christians. For these Marranos, Kol Nidre became the central statement of their faith. By the year 1500, an Ashkenzai cantor in Southwestern Germany voiced the sentiments of the terror-stricken Marranos using a touching melody which expressed the fear, and the horror as well as the hope for salvation. That tune is preserved in the setting our Cantor will sing, and Molly will play on the cello, ten days from now. For almost 500 years that tune and those words served to release Jews all over the world from the vows they made and could not fulfill.

Marianne and I had the privilege to see a new production of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice this summer, at Tina Packer’s Shakespeare and Company, in Lenox Massachusetts. Having seen the Merchant of Venice dozens of times, I wondered if there would be any new revelations from this production. I was astounded by the wisdom of this iteration, and the contributions that the actors offered in concert with Packer as their director. Most important was the understanding that Jonathan Epstein brought to his portrayal of Shylock, long an unsympathetic character, often portrayed as deserving of his treatment because of his essential avarice, born of his Jewishness.

Jonathan Epstein himself is a committed Jew – and he has wrestled with the role of Shylock throughout his career. Thinking about the High Holidays, he remembered the reading of Akedat Yitzhak — the binding of Isaac, which we read tomorrow morning. When called to the test of faith, Abraham answers – Hineni – Here I am.   Epstein reasoned that if he portrayed Shylock as a representative of the Jewish people, and the character does what he does because of his Jewishness, then he would perpetuate the anti-Semitism that many have charged consumed Shakespeare and his play.   But Epstein sees Shylock behaving in spite of his Jewishness and does what he does in defiance of the horrified opposition of his community. He sees Shylock as a man alone and apart – as Abraham was, when he too was confronted with a challenge, and choses the wrong course until the very moment in which he feels he must kill. Abraham, withdraws his knife, as does Shylock.   Moreover, Epstein offers the brilliant observation that Shylock is not a Jewish name – but reduced to its consonants, SH – L -CH, one can tease out the Hebrew word Shalach – to send forth – as Abraham does with his hand, but Does Not Kill. In this production, as the play draws to a close, and Shylock, as punishment is forced to convert to Christianity, we hear his voice fill the theatre chanting Kol Nidrei. And perhaps, that Hebrew name, Shalach (as the Jewish characters in this production call Shylock), really means that he is an emissary – a Shaliach – for all who come to understand that they said something so terribly wrong, and not being able to take those words back, find themselves wrapped in sin and regret. They want to be released from errant vows so that they can take responsibility, say Hineni – Here I am, and turn toward doing what is good and right.

There is no question that the most powerful characteristic we Jews have is our ability to make clear our thoughts, articulate our emotions and reveal our inmost being by the power of the voice. The great prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah used their voices to rail against the injustices they saw in the community, to challenge their fellow Jews when they believed that they were behaving poorly, to remind the community of the importance of worship and practice and to articulate what they believed God wanted of all of them. The texts of Isaiah and Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea and all the other great prophets of Israel are texts that resonate with the power of the voice. Read them. Drink in their words and you will know that these are not thoughtful musings on the problems of their society — these are sermons, speeches, orations from which their voices reached out to the ears of the people to stir their souls. The prophets understood the power of the voice for they felt commanded to speak the words of God as they understood God. To this day, the prophet’s words still have the power to change and transform, if they reach our ears.

To what do we listen today? How is the voice used to move? It sickens me to say that the uplifting, oratorical, homiletic, commanding voices have been silenced or ignored and what has taken hold of most people’s attention is the poisonous voice – the political stage has become littered with vile ad hominem attacks on opponents – the political commentators dissecting the validity of heinous charges leveled at one player or another — of the filthy rhetoric of talk-show and radio pundits looking to shock and awe their listeners and generate millions of dollars for advertisers who care little for what is said, but much for how many tune in for their daily dose of bile. There are those who are willing to dismiss these violators of the public trust as simply “entertainers” – and even those who seek public office are reduced to entertainers — but if what they say constitutes entertainment, then snuff films and pornography have become our new gold standard – for their words and their message fall far lower on the scales of taste and propriety.

Against the backdrop of myriads of examples of public discourse elevating society (and need we mention Lincoln, Stephen Wise, Martin Buber, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. John Kennedy, Reinhold Niebuhr?) how have we, as a society, allowed the voice to be used as a sword, a bludgeon, a flame-thrower?

Has any leader truly denounced this kind of abuse of language and imagery? Has anyone forsworn resorting to vile diatribe, and returning to the issues that plague our society? I only hope that soon they will.

The power of the voice is remarkable indeed. The power of life is in the tongue; we are told by our Jewish sources.

During the Torah reading for Rosh HaShana tomorrow morning, we will hear the stirring and disturbing story of the binding of Isaac. At the end of the story we read that Abraham returns to Beer Sheva – but there is no mention of Isaac. The next chapter is called Haye Sarah (the Life of Sarah) but the first words of that story are: “And Sarah died.” There is a rabbinic midrash that tells us that Sarah heard from the local gossip-mongers about the plans Abraham had to sacrifice Isaac – Sarah couldn’t believe it, but Abraham and Isaac left so early in the morning, Sarah could not catch up to them to stop this folly she heard from the gossipers. After several days, she lifts her eyes to see Abraham returning (remember: Torah doesn’t say where Isaac is) and she thinks to herself: “They were right – he killed our son!” And there Sarah dies – of a broken heart.

And this is the result of gossip! For the one who publicly embarrasses another individual, Talmudic sources are even harsher. “The one who insults a person in public is morally as guilty as if he/she has shed blood (Baba Metzia 58b) Rabbi Nachman (3rd Cent) says that this is proven biologically as the victim first turns red and the turns white (on rush of blood and the draining of blood). This kind of rhetoric is similar to murder, as one’s public image is destroyed. Is this the way we want to choose the next leader of our republic – to see who wins in a mud-slinging match? To see who can come up with the most unique and histrionic way of belittling one’s opponent?

Rabbinic judgment doesn’t hold much hope for those who resort to poisonous rhetoric. In Pirke Avot we learn: The one who insults a person in public loses his share in the world-to-come. (Avot 3:11) And this kind of anger at those of evil speech is extended even to those who jokingly harm another’s image or reputation: The one who call a person by a derisive nickname, even if it is commonly used by others, is guilty of a grave offense. (Baba Metzia 58b)

But perhaps the most telling instruction on this topic comes from the rabbinic commentators on the Torah section which describes M’tzora (loosely translated as Leprosy). The rabbis ponder what this strange disease is and from whence it comes (remember: they were fascinating people, those people of Biblical times, but their knowledge of medical science was not advanced – they firmly believed that if you were sick, it was because of what you did and God’s punishment for your act). We learn that the rabbis parsed the word M’tzora and saw it as an abbreviation for 3 words: Motze Sheym Ra – the one who speaks evil – or the one who causes one an evil name – SLANDER. The rabbis teach us that the “Leper” is one who slanders others – and their disease, an affliction of the skin, is the punishment for bringing evil upon others. The Slanderer wears his sins on his sleeve – he is ugly on the outside because he is ugly on the inside. The purification from M’tzora begins only by healing the inside – ridding one of the evil tongue – this might lead to a healing on the outside.

Those whose poisonous vitriol pollute our political debate are ugly – inside and out — and we should say that loud and clear. Our voices should rise above the din as we demand a return to the voice of leadership – voices of respect and thoughtfulness, voices of prophesy and concern for the good of humanity and community.

And living in a climate in which this kind of debate has become normal, has had an impact on our judgement and our ability to learn and to reason. We’d like to believe that most of what we know is correct and truthful, and that if presented with facts to prove we’re wrong, we would sheepishly accept the truth and change our views accordingly. But, research out of the University of Michigan in 2010 suggests that’s not what happens, that we base our opinions on beliefs and when presented with contradictory facts, we adhere to our original belief even more strongly. And politics, instead of being a forum to discuss ways to improve our society, becomes a blood-sport.

No, the prophets of old were not sweet and kind – Isaiah would probably not have been much fun in a bar or at a party – but he and his ilk spoke the truth with respect for those around them and didn’t resort to name-calling or slander to get their point across. And just like the prophets of old, let us speak against the injustices we see and let us start with those who belittle others for their own aggrandizement.

Imagine why our rabbis needed to compose a prayer like Kol Nidrei – they understood that what one says in public defines us. They recognized that sometimes we are unable to fulfill that which we promise – that which we vow – that which we espouse. But our words are so powerful, they needed to create an antidote, should our words betray us.

The Psalmist wrote (in Psalm 15):

O God, who may abide in Your House? Who may dwell in Your holy mountain?
Those who are upright; who do justly; who speak the truth within their hearts;
Who do not slander others, or wrong them, or bring shame upon them;
Who scorn the lawless, but honor those who revere God;
Who give their word, and, come what may, do not retract;
Who do not exploit others; who do not take bribes.
Those who live in this way shall never be shaken.

The power of the voice to guide and teach, uplift and embolden is remarkable indeed. The voice can express the dreams and hopes for the future; the voice can express the prayers of the heart and soul; the voice can challenge the wrongs of today and chart a course for a better tomorrow. But we have seen the power used to crush and insult, to defame and to slander. Let us use our voices to uphold what is right and good. May we soon see a return to civility, respect and dignity as we debate the critical issues of our day.

Shana Tova u’Mituka – may we all have a sweet and good year of blessing and peace.

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