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Keep a civil tongue in your head

Thursday, 18 February, 2016 - 10:59 am

Last Saturday night, after Shabbat ended, I noticed a flurry of activity on social media surrounding the sudden passing of Justice Antonin Scalia. The death of a Supreme Court justice is certainly a newsworthy event. What opened my eyes, however, was the vitriol and hatred that was being directed toward Scalia. He was certainly a polarizing figure, whose opinions evoked strong reactions. It was disappointing that the reactions and differences weren’t intellectual disagreements or even practical disagreements that were not personalized into a hatred and enmity.

Come to think of it, if one turns on talk radio, one finds similar sentiments directed toward anyone of a different political persuasion. Individuals such as a sitting president are proclaimed the enemy of the United States. Political figures are equated with Kim Jong Un and other true despots. When I hear proclamations such as “the true enemy are the Democrats” or “the Republicans are the cause of all ills” I think to myself, “Enemy? The word enemy should reserved for ISIS, Iran, Taliban, Hamas and folks like that”

As a child I always heard that “sticks and stones will break my bones but names can never hurt me.” I don’t think that Torah agrees entirely with that sentiment. While it is smart for a person who is the target of name calling to not be affected by it, the practice in and of itself, is extremely destructive. Words have power and should be used judiciously.

The Rebbe tells the following story about the Baal Shem Tov. A resident of Mezibuz had a quarrel with another. Once, while in the Baal Shem Tov's shul, he shouted that he would tear the other fellow to pieces like a fish. The Baal Shem Tov told his pupils to hold one another's hand, and to stand near him with their eyes closed. Then he placed his holy hands on the shoulders of the two disciples next to him. Suddenly the disciples began shouting in great terror: They had seen that fellow actually dismembering his disputant. This incident shows clearly that every potential has an effect - either in physical form or on a spiritual plane that can be perceived only with higher and more refined senses.

The Torah goes to great lengths to avoid, whenever possible, using negative language. The classic example is in the story of Noah’s flood. When describing the animals that came to the ark, the Torah speaks of pure animals (tehorah) and those that are not tehorah, rather than saying Tameh (impure). So the Torah “wastes” extra words just to avoid using negative language about an animal.

How much more so when we are speaking of a person. How much more so when we are speaking of a person with whom we share a country and a desire for a life of liberty. Differences are there and they should be addressed, even vehemently, but one must always keep a civil tongue and avoid using hyperbolic expressions that can be mistaken as literal by the uninitiated.

While many of our civic leaders have fallen prey to this mindset, we would do well to look at the mutual respect and civility between Justices Ginsburg and Scalia to see how things should be done. It starts with you and me. If we resolve to change our way of speaking, a grass roots movement of civility can grow and change our entire society. And even if it doesn’t, at least our corner of the universe will be a more peasant one.

Chabad’s grand Purim party has gained a reputation as a party not to be missed! This is thanks to the incredible amount of involvement, creativity and fantastic ideas of so many. Let's make this year a Purim to be remembered! Please join us on Sunday, February 21 @ 7:45 PM - Chabad Metairie to plan the Purim party.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

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