Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah -Chukat

“The first cut is the deepest.” Cat Stevens wrote about the hole in his heart after the love of his life ripped it apart. They say “sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me.” I don’t know who came up with that thought, but they obviously never interacted with other human beings. I have broken lots of bones, but the wounds to my heart somehow don’t leave. I know that in this realm, I am not alone. In fact, I think there are more of us who don’t believe the adage than do. It is a nice motivational speech to give, but I really believe that does more harm than help. I think of it in the same vein as someone trying to offer sympathetic words during another bereavement. I will never forget the day someone told my child that her dead mother was in a better place.

The insensitivity is not limited to moments of consolation. Our tenor of speech is horrifically demeaning. Because I strongly prefer the word “Shoah (destruction)” to “Holocaust”, someone called me a Holocaust denier. People lump groups and labels together, as if there is no human individuality. We hear “all Democrats,” “all Republicans,” “all Jews,” “all Blacks,” and the list goes on, as if there is any such thing as “all anything.”

Even before the devolution of our public discourse, people rarely paid attention to the way in which they described each other. Attempts to fix the insensitivity gets called, “politically correct” speech. In returning people to being human first, we get accused of muddying the waters. The reality, though, is that no person is the sum total of the labels with which we lump them. We are mutli-dimensional human beings, and yet, in our insistence on labeling people for our ease, we often dismiss their humanity. Barack Obama was our President who was Black, not our Black President. Instead of calling someone disabled, we speak of them as a person with a disability.

By labeling people, we see the label first and our Implicit bias takes hold. We see that human first, as fulfilling all the stereotypical characteristics we expect that comes with the label (positive and negative). Too often, the engagement does not get deeper. Whether time, circumstance, or bias gets in the way, we walk away knowing little about an individual but claim to know so much more.

Labels stigmatize people in our eyes, but more important is the impact it has on the individual – the object of our comments. If you tell a child he is bad long enough, he will believe it and act accordingly. If you propagandize against someone long enough – everyone else believes it as truth.

Moses crosses this line in this week’s Torah portion. After 40 years of wandering with these people, they buried Aaron and Miriam. As Miriam died, the magical wells that sprung wherever she traveled ceased. The people were thirsty – angry, hurt, and thirsty. In his frustration, he scolds the entire nation of Israel, calling them a band of rebels. He then smashes the rock from which God promised that water would flow.

Immediately, God told Moses he could not lead the people across the Jordan and into Israel. Scholars debate the reason for this punishment. Many argue that it was because Moses blasphemed before God. God told him to speak to the rock, and instead he struck it. Others, however, argue that it was not that Moses struck the rock, it was that he demeaned the people and then acted in violence. As a leader, people would look to him for their examples of behavior. In that Moment, Moses made it ok to be hurtful. In demeaning them with his words, he set the tone for their acceptance of who they are in God’s eyes and in each other’s. If the great Moses, spokesperson for God, thinks that the whole nation is nothing more than a rabble, what are they supposed to think of themselves?

What we say matters. We have to speak compassionately and respectfully, even (and maybe especially) when we disagree. We have to look to each other’s humanity first and only then to the attributes that further describe their role in this world. We need to take better care of each other.

Shabbat Shalom.