“These Words” – Shabbat Devarim, August 9, 2019

“Eilu ha-devarim” – These are the words. This is the way the Book of Deuteronomy opens. These are the words that Moses spoke to all the Israelites. The entire book is composed of a series of speeches – sermons – given by Moses in the days before his death. Sermons of history and remembrance. Sermons of chastisement. Sermons of promise.

These are the words that Moses chooses ever so carefully to re-tell the story of this past forty years.

“Eilu ha-devarim.” These are the words.

Except that the Hebrew is actually much more nuanced than that. The word “Davar” often refers to words, to speech. But a “davar” is also a thing, an action, a behavior.

כִּי־קָרוֹב אֵלֶיךָ הַדָּבָר מְאֹד בְּפִיךָ וּבִלְבָבְךָ לַעֲשׂתוֹ:

“This thing is very close to you, on your lips and in your heart, that you accomplish them,” Moses will say in a subsequent sermon, referring to the life of mitzvah the Israelites are commanded to lead in the Promised Land.[1]

“When you go out as a troop against your enemies,” וְנִשְׁמַרְתָּ מִכֹּל דָּבָר רָע: “guard against all bad behavior,” Moses will warn them, regarding the struggle they will have settling the land.[2]

By often using the same language for both words and deeds, the book of Deuteronomy – Moses’s epitaph to himself — draws a clear connection between what you say and what you do. The lesson, I believe, is that the way you speak carries the same consequences as the way you act.

I think about this fundamental lesson in the wake of a sad, horrifying, deadly week in our country.

Within a few hours of each other, two young men with a grudge and a powerful weapon went on bloody rampages – first in El Paso, Texas, and then in Dayton, Ohio. More than 30 people are dead, scores more wounded – some critically.

We do not know yet what drove the mass murderer in Dayton to kill nine people, including his own sister. But we do know a lot more about the first shooter, who drove ten hours from his hometown to deliberately target Hispanics and mixed-race couples — and found what he was looking for at a Wal-Mart store in the border town of El Paso.

We know a lot, because, like the terrorists responsible for the carnage at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, at a synagogue in Poway, California, and at Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh, the 21-year-old white male suspect was connected to an on-line manifesto posted just before he started shooting – clearly stating what the author was about to do and why.

The El Paso screed – posted 19 minutes before the first 9-11 calls came in – railed against what the author called “a Hispanic invasion of Texas.”  It called for separating our country in to different zones according to race. It warned that white people were being replaced by foreigners. It decreed, and I quote: “if we can get rid of enough people, then our way of life can be more sustainable.”

Similar language was posted on line and in chat rooms by the terrorists responsible for the slaughters in New Zealand and California and Pittsburgh. It’s a white-supremacist theory called “The Great Replacement.” This one substituted Hispanics for Jews or Muslims – but the perceived grievances are the same: the attempted replacement of whites by people of other colors or ethnicities. And the antidote is the same: Kill as many of the “other” as you possibly can, to deter more of them from invading your country.

The white supremacist terrorists who conducted these slaughters of innocents clearly understand the connection between word and deed. They themselves had been influenced by what previous terrorists had written. They themselves want to encourage others in their circles of hate to follow in their footsteps. They are everywhere. And they are dangerous. According to the Wall Street Journal:

“Violence committed by white men inspired by an extremist ideology make up a growing number of domestic terrorism cases, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Of about 850 current domestic terrorism cases, 40% involve racially motivated violent extremism and a majority of those cases involve white supremacists, the FBI said.”

Eilu Ha-devarim: Watch just not what we say, but what we do.

As Jews, our history teaches us terrible lessons about the connection between word and deed. The Nazi program of genocide began with anti-Jewish propaganda, blaming us for the economic and social woes that beset Germany after World War One. This was followed by a concerted program of de-humanization, then discrimination, then removing Jews from civic life, then physically separating us. Then deporting us.

The horrors of the Holocaust are unique in history – but the pattern is so clear that the Anti-Defamation League created a Pyramid of Hate that starts at the bottom with biased attitudes like stereotyping and fear-mongering, to acts of bias like bullying and isolation, all the way up to genocide. Not every action on the bottom leads to the top. But every genocide starts at the bottom.

Eilu ha-devarim. At its most horrific, propoganda begets pogrom.

But dangerous and potential deadly language does not just lurk in the chat rooms of Chan8. It is all around us. Insensitivity, stereotyping, ridicule, name-calling, bullying, de-humanization – all of it is heavy in the air of our public discourse.

As Peter Baker and Michael D. Shear wrote this week in the New York Times:

“Linking political speech, however heated, to the specific acts of ruthless mass killers is a fraught exercise, but experts on political communication said national leaders could shape an environment with their words and deeds, and bore a special responsibility to avoid inflaming individuals or groups, however unintentionally.”

And those words do inflame.

So we have moved from “Mexicans are rapists” and “this is an invasion” and migrants “pour and infest” our country and “go back to where you came from” and the clear implication that women lawmakers of color are not true Americans . . .

To a group of young white men, photographed at a political rally this week choking a life-sized cutout of Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez . . .

To dozens of border agents using racist and misogynistic language in private chat rooms, belittling Hispanic law-makers and threatening members of Congress who call for investigations of the conditions at the border. . .

To those conditions that exemplify dehumanization: immigrant children living in filth, without diapers, food, or showers, for weeks at a time – many torn from their parents, never to be reunited. . .

To the name-calling and fear-mongering reflected in the screed attributed to the El Paso killer, who traveled ten hours from home to target Hispanics and mixed-race couples. Just as it had appeared in similar postings by the white-nationalist terrorists who killed in Christchurch, and Poway, and Pittsburgh.

National leaders not only could shape an environment with their words – they must. We have a right to demand that ALL such language cease. Because you never know who’s listening to you. You never know who’s talking about your remarks in the dark corners of the internet. You never know who hears your nasty, degrading remarks and takes them as an invitation, or even a command, to act on them.

We never know who. But because we know they’re out there, we must all watch what we say and how we say it. And because we also know that words and deeds are deeply embedded in each other, we must all demand that civic discourse be civil discourse.

Eilu ha-devarim” – there are always consequences to these words.

Changing behavior, in Judaism, is called teshuvah. It is the act of turning from sin, seeking forgiveness, and forging a different path. The first step is acknowledging your sin – of word or of deed. It has to be personal and it has to be sincere.

My own scholarly work this year focused on a Yom Kippur prayer called “Tefillah Zakah,”[3] in which the sincere penitent pledges to use those parts of the body with which they committed sin to try to repair the damage they have done.

Here is part of that prayer, in my translation:

“[God], You have gifted me with a mouth and tongue and teeth and palate and throat . . .  Through the power of speech, You differentiated human from beast—and yet I am not even a beast, for I have defiled my mouth with obscenities and with evil language; with lies, mockery, and gossip; sowing discord, shaming others, cursing others, and glorifying myself at the expense of others.

“You have gifted me with hands and the sense of touch, that I might engage in the performance of mitzvot. And yet I have defiled them through forbidden contact, striking with a vicious fist and raising a hand to cause harm.

“You have gifted me with legs with which to walk the path of mitzvah. And yet I have defiled them, turning them into legs that hasten to cause trouble. . .”

The true penitent then vows to seek forgiveness from those they have wronged – knowing that God cannot forgive until atonement has been made.

It’s time for teshuvah. It’s time for those who have let loose the beast of fear-mongering and de-humanization and the clear potential for violence to stop, turn, acknowledge what they have done, and instead use their speech and their hands and their legs and every other part of their body that they have defiled . . . to calm, and to heal, and to unite.

Do it now. Do it for us all.

Ken yehi ratson. May this be God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.


©2019 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] Parashat Nitzavim, Deut. 3o:14

[2] Parashat Ki Teitse: Deut. 23:10

[3] In traditional prayer books, Tefillah Zakah appears just prior to Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur Eve, in preparation for asking God to excuse unfulfilled vows that one has tried one’s best to fulfill.

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