Kindness in Words, Rosh Hashanah Morning 5780
Words matter. With words, God created the universe, as we will read in our Torah portion tomorrow morning. With words, Jonah the prophet was able to convince the inhabitants of the wicked city of Nineveh to repent their ways. This story we will read Yom Kippur afternoon. Is there something so special about words that two of our Biblical readings during the High Holy Days have to do with the transformation that comes through words?
Of course. This time of year is all about change. We take stock of who we have been and if we are lucky, we are able to take steps toward becoming who we want to be. I say “if we are lucky” because real change is so hard. We have deep scars and deep wounds – so deep in fact, that they too often keep us from making the changes we want or need to make. Because we do know the power of words – they can be used to create and repent and other positive things. But they can hurt and do long-lasting damage, too.
I have decided that this sermon will be very personal. I know that makes some of you uncomfortable, and for this I offer an apology in advance. But over the past nine months, I have been forced to confront the long-term impact of unkind words. I hope to offer some insights and considerations on what Judaism can teach us.
My first memory is from the time I was five and in kindergarten. I imagine it began sooner than that because unkind words don’t just pop up out of nowhere. But that day, when I was five, remains crystal clear for me. Our classroom had a bathroom in it, and we were lined up, probably after lunch or nap. I really had to go, and was politely waiting my turn. But in the end, I couldn’t wait, and ended up peeing in my pants. I wasn’t embarrassed and no one made fun of me. We were five. My teacher did say, “I will have call your mother for her to bring you clean clothes.”
A few minutes later – we lived very close to the school – my mother came in. She didn’t have a change of clothes with her. She grabbed me by the hand, wrist actually, and we walked quickly to the car. Once inside the vehicle, she began screaming at me for humiliating her. I felt tiny.
After that, I tried my best to play the goody two-shoes role. My mother screamed at my father and older brother so much, that one therapist I saw many years ago deemed her to be a “rage-aholic.” I hated the screams. I would do anything to keep her happy with me.
As good as I tried to be, the first area in which I failed miserably to make my mother happy had to do with my appearance. When I was in fifth grade, I traded my flute after maybe two or three weeks of lessons for a softball mitt. My mother said to me, “You’ll never get a husband if you keep playing sports.”
In seventh grade, a new unkindness in words emerged from her – to put me in my place. I believe she thought she was supporting me. She gave up trying to stop me from playing sports. Instead, when I tried out for a team and wasn’t chosen, she’d say, “Well, I knew you wouldn’t make the team. I mean you’re good, but you’re not that good.”
That same year, I wished that the earth had opened and swallowed me when she lambasted me at a softball game in front of my coaches, teammates, and the other team. I can’t even remember what, in her eyes, I had done wrong. Later in the season, I had no idea how to feel when the beach chair she was sitting on collapsed. She wasn’t hurt. I wonder if I would have cared if she had been.
Still, her obsession was with how I looked. She’d remind me that I’d get a husband if I wore makeup. She hated my clothes so much that she called me a slob. She filled my closet with clothes I refused to wear. But her primary concern was my weight. She regularly told me that I would be pretty if I wasn’t so fat.
That no man would look at me because I was too fat. She’d suggest diets. She called me fat so often that our enormously large house cleaner, someone far more overweight than I ever was, would greet me when I arrived home from school on the Fridays she was at our house with the words, “Miss Robin, you are too fat.” My mother would offer me “tips” on my weight, diets, and my appearance until sometime in my 40s when I told her that if she ever mentioned any of it again, I would cut off all contact.
I remember the time my usually kind brother called me Chunk. I must have looked so broken that he immediately apologized. He has never said another unkind thing to me in the nearly 60 years we have shared life on earth.
When my goody two-shoes strategy didn’t work with my mother, I tried staying out of the house as much as possible. I joined clubs. I played sports. I tutored other students. On weekends, I rode my bicycle to a county park and sat by the river writing overly dramatic, really awful poetry. I had no idea how to deal with my emotions and my pain.
I wish I could tell you that my dad was my savior. And for some things he was – he’d help get me out of the house. He’d ask me to run errands with him. He’d take me to the mall to buy me new music or a new book. But in truth, he was only my dad. He was her husband, so most of the time he defended her. If she got angry at me – because by the time I was in high school I would yell back – she’d say “Wait until your father comes home.” It wouldn’t scare me, but it took away from me the parent I thought was my ally. This left me with almost no adult to trust.
All this time, please understand, I was also coming to terms with my own sexual orientation. I became aware of my attraction to other girls at age nine. I had no role models, no positive images, and certainly no positive news stories to read. I didn’t dare let anyone know. I hid.
I have now come to realize that I felt that I deserved all the unkind words from my mother because I was “bad.” I was an object of scorn – someone to hate and ridicule and reject. Of course I should be yelled at and told how terrible I was.
When yelling at me and insulting me didn’t work at changing my appearance to resemble the model my mother had once been, she turned to the medical establishment. First she took me to an endocrinologist because she was convinced that my hormones would prove that I was either an abnormal girl or I was a boy. When the doctor reported that I had the normal hormones of a girl, she sent my to a psychologist. He, too, reported on my utter normalcy. My mother didn’t believe either of them.
By the time I started applying to college, I was so confused. I had no idea where to go. I said “yes” to the first college that accepted me.
Last year, my High Holy Day sermons, like this year, were on kindness. On Kol Nidrei, I told this story: A college freshman was out with her mother during spring break of her first year at school. Her mother asked her to share what classes she was taking and what she was learning. As the college student answered, her mother cut her off to change the topic. The daughter asked why she interrupted her. Her mother responded, “You bore me.”
When the mother first asked about school, the daughter was stunned, thinking her mother had developed a genuine interest in her daughter. She quickly realized that wasn’t the case.
At the time I told this story, I did not reveal that I was the college student. I thought becoming an adult, moving out of my childhood home, and becoming semi-independent would make things better. But it didn’t.
When I applied to law school, my reach school was Yale. I didn’t get in, but I was accepted at and attended Cornell. When I told my mother that Yale rejected me she said, “I knew you wouldn’t get in. I mean, you’re smart, but you’re not that smart.”
So as soon as I could, I moved out west. I had to get as far away as possible. I would return to the east once a year for Thanksgiving, staying out of the house as much as possible. When, at age 39 on one of those visits, I shared that I was going to study to become a rabbi, she said, “When will you grow up and pick a career?”
When my dad died in 2017, it got worse. For the next twenty-two months – until she died – I dreaded every phone call, every visit, and any other interaction. The last time we saw each other, about a month before she died, as Liba and I were leaving her home, she hurled a few insults at me. We spoke a few times after that. When she died, I felt one, and only one, emotion: relief.
Before I continue, let me assure you of something: I am a survivor. I am here and present. I am strong. I have learned about myself, my mother, mental illness, and parenting. While I can’t change the past, I am learning how to reframe it. Now, back to words.
The Psalms liken hateful words to arrows. Like arrows, explains the Midrash, for a person stands in one place and his or her words wreak havoc on another’s life far away. We don’t have to be present for the full force of the words to hit our target; we don’t even have to follow through with the threat, because saying the words alone resonates in our ears and in our head for a very long time, and make us fearful in the midst of our families or elsewhere.
Hateful words can lead to hateful action, as this story shows – a story involving the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement in Poland.
In Mezhibuzh, the hometown of the Baal Shem Tov, two local residents were involved in a bitter dispute. One day, they were angrily shouting at each other in the local synagogue, when one of them cried out: “I’ll rip you to pieces with my bare hands!”
The Baal Shem Tov, who was in the synagogue at the time, told his disciples to form a circle, each taking the hand of his neighbor, and to close their eyes. He closed the circle by placing his hands upon the shoulders of the two disciples who stood to his right and his left. Suddenly, the disciples cried out in fright: behind their closed eyelids, they saw the angry man actually tearing his fellow apart, just as he had threatened. Imagine if we could see how our harmful words affect others.
It doesn’t have to be this way. In our morning liturgy, we acknowledge the power of words to create when we pray, baruch she-amar v’haya ha-olam, “Blessed is the One who spoke and the world came into being.” Our ancient rabbis wrote this prayer to remind us daily about the power of words. God uses them for good. As we are created b’tzelem elohim, in God’s image, we, too, are obligated to use our words for good.
I pray that you were not or are not the victim of someone who used or uses unkind words – a parent, a boss, a co-worker, a teacher, a spouse – or anyone else in your life. If you are currently in the throes, please come see me; I can’t stop the other person from speaking, but I can remind you of your own worth.
Well beyond the unkind words from those we know are the unkind words that have become a part of our daily lives. Civil discourse has imploded. Hate speech is everywhere – and not just from those whom we consider to be our political opposites. Everyone, it seems, has something bad to say to or about others. Every one.
Change must begin with us. If we let those words linger in the air, we are complicit; if we allow that kind of talk to continue, it will eat away at our soul. Believe me, I know. So let’s change the way we speak to one another. Let’s begin with our children. Let’s raise them up. Let’s celebrate them and their gifts. Let no child ever feel so badly that she says, like I did, “My self-esteem is so low that I can play handball against the curb.”
When the rhetoric fills the newspapers and radio and TV, we need to take a stand – for civility, for fairness – not for political correctness, but for our very souls. We can’t make our politicians do what we want them to. But we can make changes in the way we choose our words.
I can be civil even when I think that a person is misguided. I can disagree with someone – respectfully. Let me argue policy, not the person. When I do this, I create a new reality – a new way that we speak to each other.
The Talmud tells the story of Tobi, the servant of the famous Rabbi Gamliel. The Rabbi told Tobi to go to the market and buy the best piece of meat he could find. Tobi brought back a piece of tongue. Then, the Rabbi told Tobi to bring back the worst piece of meat he could find. Tobi again brought back a piece of tongue. The great Rabbi was confused. “When I asked you to bring back the best meat, you brought back tongue. And when I asked you to bring back the worst meat, your brought back tongue. Please explain your logic.” “Very simple,” said Tobi. “There is nothing better than a good tongue, and nothing worse than a bad one.”
May this year bring about a new way to talk with one another, and may it start with us. May our words be for the good of our families and friends, our communities and by extension, the entire world.
As told by Reb Yanki Tauber