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Rabbi Joshua Stanton Headshot

Don't Weaponize Your Words (Devarim, Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22)

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Far from the fighting in Israel and Gaza, Syria and Ukraine, the peanut gallery reigns supreme. Many of us have anointed ourselves armchair pundits, battling each other in wars of words disturbingly disconnected from the suffering of those in the conflict regions themselves. Rhetoric tears away at rhetoric -- or more deafeningly still, is amplified in the echo chambers of our social media feeds of likeminded "friends" and "followers." Knowing little but fearing much, connected to conflicts yet physically remote, we spin uncertain words into unchecked narratives that give voice to the pain we feel and don't entirely know how to channel.

When I say "we," I don't mean it rhetorically. To be sure, I have found myself overstepping more than once of late. My criticism is as much self-directed as it is intended for others. But it is hard to imagine that the ferocity of our interchanges, and even our monologues, is doing anything but creating a violent ricochet effect from other regions to our own. When the violence subsides in those regions -- and I hope and pray that it does soon -- how will we be able to look at each other, trust each other, collaborate with each other in the same way, when we have done so much to undermine our trust? Our words can tear our social fabric viciously asunder. Tragically, one of the shared bonds of members of different religious and cultural traditions in times of conflict might well be our excessive and polemical rhetoric.

Perhaps fittingly, or ironically, this week's Torah portion is called "Words"(Devarim), as is the book of the Torah that it begins (more commonly known in English as the Book of Deuteronomy).Most remarkable about this fifth and final book of the Pentateuch is not the physical events that take place. Those are to be found in the other four books. Instead, one marvels at how very little takes place, except for the words that Moses conveys.

Deuteronomy begins, "These are the words Moses spoke to all of Israel." The Israelites are assembled on the edge of the Jordan River, so very close to the Promised Land. There is very little left for Moses to do. His time has come to pass the mantel of political leadership to Joshua. Yet before doing so, and before his own death, he assembles those whom he has led for so long and gives them one final set of instructions. In the course of the coming chapters and portions torrents of social and legal advice pour forth; Moses admonishes, praises, cajoles, and inspires the Israelites. He hones in on important details of Israelite life, sharing lessons from the past and instructing about what might come in the future. In this closing book of the Torah, the prophet's words overtake his deeds. Or, perhaps, his words become his primary deeds -- part of his lasting legacy to the people he led to freedom, as he begins to prepare for his own death.

What a lesson for us now.

No, none of us is Moses, but we can certainly learn from him. We owe each other -- and ourselves -- the dignity of sharing our observations, reflections, and deeply held beliefs through words crafted with care, designed to deepen or expand conversation and not to bully or bludgeon. Even in 140-letter bursts and pithy memes, we are worthy of more than so many of us have shared during these frightening, heartbreaking times.

Too often, we draw a false distinction between words and deeds, underestimating the impact that words can have on our souls and communities. We presume harsh words to be fair game online, in the mysterious ether of "virtual" interaction; all the more so in times of conflict, when we feel great pain and are uncertain about what to do about events taking place in the world. But to weaponize our words only reinforces the conflicts themselves and increases the harm that they do. Our opinions might rightly be deeply held, but our choice of words can be one of our most important deeds. Our choice not to use them abusively, even in moments of anguish, is one I hope we will all reconsider. This sensitivity, I believe, emerges powerfully from the book of "Words."

Seventy Faces of Torah is a pluralistic Jewish scriptural commentary, produced by The Center for Global Judaism at Hebrew College, in which thought leaders from around the world offer insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.

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