Words Matter

Posted on January 9, 2021

At 2:15 on Wednesday afternoon I got a text from my father: “What is happening in your country?” with 3 question marks for effect. At the time I assumed he was simply talking about objections to the democratic process and the fact that elected politicians were challenging the validity of the election that sent them to Congress. I reassured him that it was simply politics and that they would work their way through it, but he texted back: “But there are people in the Capitol Hill building who may be armed. Unbelievable.”

At that point I got up from my desk, switched on the news and stood there, unable to move as I watched images I could hardly believe were taking place in our nation’s capital.

There are some pictures that create an indelible mark on the mind and stay with a person. Seeing secret service agents with their guns drawn, defending Congress, was shocking; watching elected officials and their aides cowering behind chairs was painful, and seeing the brazen way in which these terrorists and criminals pushed past and ignored the police was frightening.

On Wednesday afternoon into the evening I found myself navigating among and stopping on three primary emotions. There was fear; I was scared by what was happening in DC, concerned that our country was under attack from insurgent forces who were challenging and seeking to destroy the very foundations of our democracy. There was sadness; how had we gotten to this point where armed citizens were trying to, at best, intimidate our politicians and, at worst, overthrow the government? And then there was a real sense of anger; I was and still am angry that this is the situation we are facing: angry at the people perpetrating these crimes, angry at the leaders and institutions who have enabled and emboldened them, angry that this is America in 2021.

To feel just one of these emotions in an intense way can be crushing and paralyzing. To feel them all together was overwhelming. Wednesday was an overwhelming day. And for many of us we are still living in its shadow; scared, sad, and angry about what happened.

I have so many responses that I want to share in relation to what we witnessed. I could not believe the way in which these violent criminals demonstrated a sense of entitlement to push past law enforcement officers, to disrespect the institutions of our government, and to commit crimes in broad daylight for the world to witness. We watched American flags being taken down, we saw a Confederate flag being waved in the halls of the Capital and we saw a total disrespect for the symbols of this country. I couldn’t help but think about what the reaction might have been had the protestors’ skin color been different; we unfortunately know that there is a double standard here and that there would have been, and has been, a different response. And then, as a Jew, it was painfully clear to see that the anti-Semites were out in force. One man wore a sweatshirt that had emblazoned on it the words “Camp Auschwitz” above a skull and crossbones; while another had a shirt that read 6MWE, I had to look this one up and I am sad to share that the initials stand for 6 million wasn’t enough.

These are the people who were storming our Capitol, these are the people who were trying to subvert democracy, these are the people who are promoting a white supremacist agenda that threatens our country, our society, and all of us.

Now, I am sure that there are some who participated in the rally who do not support a white supremacist agenda, but when you find yourself standing next to the person wearing a “Camp Auschwitz” or a 6MWE shirt you have to ask yourself about the company that you are keeping. You have to recognize that by standing shoulder to shoulder you encourage their behavior. You have to recognize that by defending their right to protest and invade the Capitol you encourage their agenda. You have to recognize that when you say to the crowd “I love you” you give them your support.

It was shocking to see the events of Wednesday afternoon, but as we reflect on it now, with the benefit of the past 48 hours, we can also see how the events were predictable. These groups, these crowds, these individuals have been encouraged, egged on, and mobilized by our political leaders, by so-called news networks and by various racist, conspiracy-promoting groups and individuals. Many of these groups had brazenly posted on social media about their plans to storm the Capitol, to overthrow the government, and to subvert the democratic process. We knew what was coming because they told us; we simply didn’t believe them.

If there is one lesson that we must take away from the events of this week, it is to finally and fully learn the lesson that words matter. We have spent weeks, but in reality there have been many months and years, when words have been spoken by our leaders, politicians, and influencers that have stoked the flames of hatred, that have encouraged distrust of our institutions, and that have laid the ground for Wednesday’s events. After weeks of hearing that the election was a fraud, that cheating has taken place, that there has been a subversion of the electoral process – it is hardly surprising that after an invitation to gather in Washington, DC the protestors decided to take matters into their own hands. A protesting-mob, became a criminal crowd who ultimately might best be labelled as terrorists attempting a coup against this country. Words were the match that ignited a fire that engulfed the Capitol.

Of course, actions are important, and a person must be held accountable for them. But all too often we excuse words as ‘just talk,’ we imagine that they emerge from a person’s mouth and essentially fall to the ground. But we know that once spoken, words have a tremendous power to harm, to cause destruction and to ignite flames that burn long after the words are spoken. In our Jewish tradition words are the very bedrock of creation. God spoke and it came to be – the words became real. And while we might think that this is simply in relation to Divine words, our own words also have the power to be translated into action. Rabbi Israel Salanter, the founder of Mussar said: “Not everything that is thought should be said. And not everything that is said should be repeated. And not everything that is repeated should be remembered.”[1]

While Wednesday was a dark day in this country’s history, we should also recognize that once order was restored to the Capitol, Senators and Congresspeople returned to the democratic process; they finished the work that had been interrupted when they were evacuated to safety. Democracy prevailed and the election was certified. And as I sat, glued to the television, it was striking to hear the words that so many of them spoke, from across the aisle. The words that condemned the actions of the criminals who had been in the chamber hours earlier. The words that warned of the danger that these people pose to our country. The words that sought to rise above political divisions to heal what so clearly has been broken. I was struck by Senator Romney who stood up in the chamber and declared: “the best way we can show respect to the voters who were upset is by telling them the truth. That’s the burden, that’s the duty of leadership.”[2] It is easy to speak, and today it is unfortunately easy to find a platform from which to share words and incite violence, anger and hate. We need words that are true, we need words that can heal, we need words to rise above our current divisions.

In this week’s Torah portion we read the story of how an Angel of God appeared to Moses in a Burning Bush. The amazing thing is that while there was a blazing fire coming out of the bush, it was not consumed.[3] As we react to Wednesday’s events it is easy to be consumed by the emotions of fear, sadness, and anger. It would be understandable to be paralyzed. But we cannot allow ourselves to be consumed, we must respond like that bush in the wilderness, burning hot with a commitment to make things better, and refusing to be consumed by the fire that surrounds us.

Wednesday was a scary day in our nation’s history. It is a day that I hope will be remembered by all of us as a day when our Republic, our democracy, our nation’s very soul came under attack. But I also hope that we will remember the fact that these forces did not defeat us. It is important to celebrate the fact that our elected representatives returned to the Congress and stayed until almost 4am to certify the election result. They refused to be intimidated or bullied and instead ensured the democratic process continued. And actually, for the first time in what feels like years, we had politicians from both sides of the aisle united; the riotous mob brought Senators and Congresspeople together in their opposition and condemnation of what had happened earlier in the day. Some even changed their votes, recognizing the gravity of that moment and the call of the hour.

It is my hope that the experience of Wednesday will serve as a wake-up call for us all. For me personally, in the space of just over two months, I pledged allegiance and became a citizen, I participated in the democratic process here and voted for the first time, and then I witnessed what some are calling an attempted coup. There were a few people in the last 48 hours who have asked me if I regretted my decision to become a citizen or if I was having second thoughts. The answer is unequivocally “no.” I did not join because I thought it would be easy, I pledged myself because I believed and still believe in the vision of America to which we are aspiring. As Jews I don’t believe that we one day simply enter the Promised Land as a specific place on earth. I believe that our obligation each and every day is to do what can to make our world and our country a Promised Land.

We have seen what destructive words can do. But we also know that words can heal, words can repair what was once broken, words can bring us back together. In this week’s Torah portion, at the Burning Bush, Moses and God speak; they share words. And Moses asks God for God’s name to be able to tell the people, and God responds with words; My Name is: “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh.”[4] It is enigmatic Hebrew that is difficult to translate, but it most literally means “I will be what I will be,” this is a Name of promise and possibility, it is a Name that is not yet defined, it is a Name with stories still to be written. It is all about the future potential. America too is Nihyeh Asher Nihyeh – we will be what we will be; there is promise and possibility, there is a future yet to be defined, and there are stories still to be written. Wednesday was a dark day where we saw the danger of words inciting hate and violence, but it was also a day that ended with words of healing, words of unity, and words of comfort. We have the power to choose the words that we will add to the American story to ensure that we reach up to our highest ideals, follow our best inclinations and recreate here a beacon of democracy, promise and hope.

Yihiyu leratzon imrei fi vehegyon libi lefanecha Adonai tzuri vegoali

May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, Adonai, our Rock and our Redeemer.

[1] With thanks to Rabbi Samantha Orshan Kahn for this quote.
[2] https://youtu.be/EfZDSbwjJgk
[3] Exodus 3:2
[4] Exodus 3:13