D'vrei Torah by Rabbi Ellie Shemtov
Before engaging your mouth, put your mind in gear!
Shammai used to say: ….. speak little, but do much... (Pirkei Avot 1:15)
Speak little? For many of us this is easier said than done. How often have we found ourselves saying something—saying anything—in order to fill the silence in the room or because saying anything feels better than staying silent? There are of course many times when speaking up is the natural thing to do. But even then, it’s best to be cautious and make sure to think before you speak. We all know what’s it’s like to instantly regret the words that have just come tumbling out of our mouths. To prevent that from happening, we should always be aware of the impact what we say, how we say it and when we say it, can have on others. Words have power.
In this week’s Torah portion, B’ha’alotcha, Moses’ brother and sister, Aaron and Miriam spoke:
בְּמֹשֶׁ֔ה עַל־אֹד֛וֹת הָֽאִשָּׁ֥ה הַכֻּשִׁ֖ית אֲשֶׁ֣ר לָקָ֑ח
against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married (Num. 12:1).
To put it more bluntly, Aaron and Miriam gossiped about their sister-in-law, the Cushite woman. God of course hears what they say and sticks up for Moses by dressing down the two siblings. God then withdraws and as punishment for her harsh words, Miriam is stricken with leprosy. Aaron however, seems to get off scot-free—but that’s a topic for another day. Then despite his siblings’ gossip, Moses does his Moses thing and prays for Miriam to be healed.
We may have opinions about what someone should or shouldn’t be doing. We may even be very eager to express those opinions verbally either in person or behind their back. But just remember, before engaging your mouth put your mind in gear.
Many of you are familiar with the Serenity Prayer-- God, grant me serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference. What you may not know is that there is a longer version of this prayer that includes the following: patience for the things that take time, appreciation for all that I have, and tolerance for those with different struggles. These past few months the pandemic has required us to be patient and more than ever, appreciate what we have. But this last week or so it is tolerance for those with different struggles, or more to the point, intolerance and racism-- that has taken center stage.
This week’s Torah portion Naso, begins with God instructing Moses to take a census. The instruction begins with the phrase Naso et rosh-- literally “lift up the head,” but translated as “count” or “take a census.” It’s interesting to note that although there are several words in biblical Hebrew that mean to count such as lifkod, the Torah chooses to use Naso et rosh, lift up the head.” One explanation for this comes from Genesis:
וַיִּבְרָ֨א אֱלֹהִ֤ים ׀ אֶת־הָֽאָדָם֙ בְּצַלְמ֔וֹ בְּצֶ֥לֶם אֱלֹהִ֖ים בָּרָ֣א אֹת֑וֹ
So God created man in God’s own image, in the image of God did God create him. (Gen. 1:27)
In other words, the Torah tells us that each of us is like God and so it follows that each of us counts and each of us should be able to walk with our heads uplifted. Of course not all societies buy into that belief. Some would sooner see heads roll than heads lifted. But, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes: the notion that לֹא־ט֛וֹב הֱי֥וֹת הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְבַדּ֑וֹ It is not good that man should be alone (Gen. 2:18), signaled one of the defining tensions of all human life—while we may be independent, we are also interdependent. Our thoughts and feelings belong to the “I” but much of our existence depends on being part of a “we.”
In the Torah what matters is not how we see ourselves but how we see, treat, and behave toward others. If we can open our hearts to see beyond the “I” and embrace the “we,” we will find a world filled with uplifted heads. We can have that world because after all, God doesn’t make junk.