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The Real Festival of Words (why words matters now more than ever...)

01/10/20 12:10:18


We may think of Pesach as the festival of words; its very name suggestive of a speaking mouth -Peh (mouth) Sach (that speaks).We may think of it as the holiday about a story - the exodus - the night that tells of the great tale of liberation.

It’s however Sukkot that should claim the rights to the story, challenge the monopoly on words. Sukkot, after all, is about the story of not just a week of liberation, but a 40-year journey towards real freedom. Sukkot may lack the drama of Pesach but it encapsulates the reality of life and becoming a nation. It’s as grounded as the Sukkah itself in the hard ground of life; it’s as as fragile as the roof of the Sukkah open to the elements, the winds and storms of outrageous fortune.

It’s also Sukkot which reminds us of the real power of words for it was on the long voyage from Sinai to Canaan, that the nascent nation had to grapple with the meaning and relevance of the revelation. It was in the wilderness that the most stable certainty was the pristine word of God, the promise of the covenant. It’s no coincidence that when Moshe recalls the journey he calls his grand speech: These are the words, Eileh Hadevarim (The Hebrew name for the Book of Deuteronomy).

I love words, delving into them, playing with them, crafting them, honing them, sharpening them, punning them-and of course speaking them. Words have always carried me through life’s ups and downs and I have tried to carry them with care and respect. 

I was introduced to the power of the spoken word by the Rosh Yeshiva of my school in Johannesburg, Rabbi Avraham Tanzer, who died this week. Rabbi Tanzer was a master orator even in his old age when his voice was weakening. His drashot were always substantive, challenging, relevant and usually riveting. He spoke with his characteristic NY brogue in a clear and direct way, his language simple and accessible. He just knew how to connect; he intuitively grasped that that the heart of sermonising was about communicating not impressing, about  authenticity and sincerity not impressive rhetoric and verbal virtuosity. He spoke with passion and compassion, he spoke with humour and humanity. In Talmudic tradition he would almost invariably open his speech with a story or anecdote, something I emulated for years...

From Rabbi Tanzer I learnt how to give a drasha, how to measure my words, how to use them to reach the hearts of my listeners, how to use them to teach and reach others. How to reinvent them and yourself to escape the tired cliches and worn out habits of dialogue and debate. I will always  carry the gift of his words with me.

I will remember his example in the face of weasel words and wounding words, Lashon hara and diba ra’ah, cutting words and F bombs, words worth forgetting...Watching the USA Election debate between Trump and Biden was an object lesson in the abuse of language. It was an affront to the democratic legacy and model of the USA. There was no civility, little respect and there were words that should never have been uttered by presidential candidates. I worry deeply about the growing lack of civility in our online and public discourse and in our own communal life where politicians and leaders use words as crudely as a jack-hammer.

In these strange times, words more than ever are what will hold us together.

There is so much tension, anger and anxiety caused by the tiny little coronavirus. Anger leads to angry words, anxiety leads to critical words, tension leads to terrible words...

In the absence of physical connection we need more than ever to lean towards emotional contact. And what more than words will help us connect to each other? Social distancing does not have to mean emotional distancing.

So in this Sukkot season let’s make sure we use our speech carefully and lovingly. That we choose gentle and caring syllables, strong and generous adjectives, wise and wondrous words .

Chag Sameach from Caron and my family to you and your families.


Rabbi Ralph 


Sat, 17 April 2021 5 Iyyar 5781