“There is a time to be silent and a time to speak.” So says the author of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) in a famous chapter that begins by telling us, “there is a time for every matter under heaven.” Yesterday was Tisha B’Av, a fast day which traditionally commemorates the destruction of the first and second temples in ancient Jerusalem and all subsequent tragedies to befall the Jewish people. Last night, as I studied together with congregants, we looked at a story found in the Talmud (Gittin 55b) that attributes the destruction of the second temple to sinat hinam—baseless hatred. The story demonstrates how powerful emotions such as humiliation, pride, shame, inaction, and revenge unleash a destructive series of events on the people. And it all begins with words—an act of speech that contains the power to hurt and to harm in real, material ways. At every turn in the story, the question must be asked, “what if he had said…? What if they had said…? Did they say something in private? Should they have spoken in public?” I am a struck by the complexity of applying the Jewish ethical teachings on shmirat lashon (guarding the tongue) —taking great care with our words and lashon hara (literally “evil tongue”)—negative speech/slander/gossip in real life situations. When must we speak out, and when ought we to consider silence in order to listen, observe, and witness?
Over the past few weeks I’ve read with sadness as some friends online have shared that they have been “unfriended” or have themselves “unfriended” someone with whom they have a profound difference of perspective over the war between Israel and Hamas. These are indeed challenging times as we consider the impact of our words and the challenge of responding to Kohelet’s observation with thought and care—when is it a time to be silent and when is it a time to speak?
There have been times when speech is absolutely necessary. Those representing Israel must speak in the public sphere; to the media, to the UN, to the people of Israel and the people of Gaza. Those who seek to defend Israel’s absolute right to defend itself from terrorist attack must gather and speak in public venues to demonstrate that Israel does not stand alone. Those who investigate and learn something that can further our understanding of the practices and tactics of Hamas, and of the Israel Defense Forces, must speak. And there are times, using the tools of social media, that we feel that we must share information that illustrates an important truth or an important need.
When, then, might it be a time for silence? I have read literally hundreds of postings and articles on the war this past month. Some I like, because they accord with my already pre-existing opinions and positions. Some I find challenging, because they share a perspective that, while it may contain important truths, are inconvenient because they do not accord with how I wish to frame things. There are things that I read, and I think most of us know them when we see them, that are so strident in how they express the certainty of one way of looking at things that it appears that the primary goal is to antagonize those who see differently, and not to educate on some important matter of fact. Those are the moments when it is easy to be drawn into a war of words—and when, in fact, we might do better to remain silent. I can like something without hitting “like” and I can disagree with something without needing to use the blunt tools of social media expression to bring the poster to task for what I perceive to be their misguided perspective.
Another time when silence may be better than the wrong words, or well-intentioned but clumsily expressed words? When I read the postings from my dear friend, a Muslim married to a Palestinian, who is in pain. I notice that she does not share political pieces, but simply her pain at bearing witness to the pain and suffering of her people. Could I counter with questions about who has caused those deaths and injuries, or talk about the use of human shields? What would be the purpose of my words? What is the emotion and the need expressed in her words? My silence could, of course, be interpreted as a lack of caring. But my silence is meant as an expression of respect—respect for the reality of the pain and suffering. I wish to say nothing that will diminish my friend’s pain. My friendship is more important.
As we discussed these, and other scenarios, in our gathering last night, what became clear to us all is that it is very difficult to discern with clarity when to speak and when to remain silent. Simply carrying that awareness might bring with it a humility that accompanies our word—an awe that contains within it the knowledge of how much, in any moment, we don’t know. There are times when we still must speak, and times when we still must respond. But, perhaps, if we take a little longer to reflect on our felt need to do so, and our perception of someone else’s need to express something different, our words can contribute more to all that we seek to create, and do less harm to our friendships and to our society as a whole.
It is a tree of life to those who hold it close and all of its supporters are happy. Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all of its paths lead to peace. Proverbs 3:18
This was one of the very first Hebrew songs I learned. Even as a young child, I knew it was special because it was the melody we sang as we ushered the Torah back into the aron hakodesh — the holy ark where it is kept.
The book of Proverbs, attributed to King Solomon, was written during a time when even our royalty was more innately connected to the earth than your average suburban or city-living Jew today. King Solomon — and most who lived in ancient Israel — surely understood the tremendous power of the metaphor associating Torah with a tree. Just as a tree has roots and branches, so too does Torah. Its roots date back some 3,300 years, to the Jewish narrative of Mt. Sinai — and even earlier, to the formative stories of our people that it tells. Its branches stretch well into the future, carrying generations of Jews who have, through the process of intellectual debate and spiritual discovery, enabled Judaism to evolve and continue to speak the language of modern society. Just as a tree produces fruit, so too does Torah. This fruit comes in the form of mitzvot, or commandments — active ingredients in a recipe for purposeful living. As children, we cherish the opportunity to climb a tree. So too, we strive to ascend Torah, grasping its multiple branches of interpretation and reaching for higher meaning.
Our Rabbis’ decision to celebrate this metaphor offers a good hint not only at how their society felt about the Torah, but also how they related to trees. The Torah is precious. We hold the Torah, kiss it before and after we read from it, and do everything we can to prevent it from falling. So too, we understand that we must care for our trees. We can swing from their branches, but we must be careful not to break them. We can eat from their fruit, but we are forbidden from destroying the forests they comprise.
This past Wednesday, Jews around the world celebrated Tu Bishvat, the Jewish New Year of the Trees. First documented in the Mishnah in about 200 CE, Tu Bishvat falls in the midst of winter, when trees are bare — not a time when one might expect a holiday that celebrates the glory of nature. And yet, maybe that is the very reason why this date was so aptly picked. It is at this time, when we are not necessarily cognizant of the beauty of the trees around us, that we most need a holiday to remind us of their ultimate potential. In this midway point of winter, the sap begins to travel up the roots, enabling the buds to form and flowers to bloom in the coming months of spring. Once spring arrives, we will likely be more cognizant of our relationship with the natural world, but during the winter we need a nudge to remind us of the glorious process of renewal that lies ahead.
In recent years, Tu Bishvat has been adopted by environmentalists as a Jewish earth day of sorts. Through an effort to combine Jewish spirituality and environmental action, Jewish environmentalists have stood alongside other religious activists in using a sacred voice to advocate for the future of our planet.
The midrash from Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:19 reads, “When God created Adam, God took him around all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him: ‘See how wonderful and praiseworthy all of my creations are. Everything I have created, I created for you. Be careful not to destroy My world; for if you destroy it, there is no one who will fix it after you.’”
This midrash was written 1300 years ago, yet it could not ring more true for us today. We are in the midst of environmental crisis. We must make thoughtful, resolute steps if we wish to live in a world with clean air, edible and healthful food, and a stable climate. The vitality of creation depends on our ability to find sustainable ways of stewarding our planet, and this will only come through a combination of personal commitments and governmental legislation.
This year Tu Bishvat fell during the week of the Interfaith Power and Light National Preach-In on Global Warming. The preach-in is an effort to encourage religious leaders throughout our nation to speak to their communities about the devastating impact we continue to have on our planet. As we humans engage in the burning fossil fuels, deforestation, and problematic agricultural and industrial activities, we unleash billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the environment. This carbon dioxide mixes with water vapor and other gasses in the atmosphere, trapping heat like the glass on a greenhouse and creating devastating climate change here on earth. “The vast majority of scientists now agree that our climate is being threatened in an unprecedented way,” Asserts the Reverend Sally Bingham, Founder and President of IPL, “And we’re already seeing and feeling some of the devastating consequences. I have always maintained that religious people should lead the environmental movement. If we aren’t going to take care of creation, we can’t expect others to. People from all religions have a shared purpose in doing our part to keep God’s earth clean and healthy for the future.”
Congregants in synagogues, churches, and mosques throughout the country will be offered 5×7 postcards at services this weekend that they can mail to their senators, asking them to own their moral responsibility and support the Clean Air Act.
Bingham asserts that religious leaders not only have a responsibility to speak the truth, but also have a unique ability to reach those who have not yet thought deeply about these issues. She tells congregants that the environment is not a political issue, but rather one of theology – “It’s a matter of life and death.” People often respond by saying: “I’ve just never thought of it like that – this means something to me and is going to make a difference in my life and the way I behave.”
In Judaism, we do a lot of thinking, debating, and reflecting – but the beauty of Judaism is that it is not simply esoteric and spiritual; it is also grounded and practical. Ideally, all of these discussions lead us to action that will improve our communities and our world. As we move from Tu Bishvat into National Preach-In Shabbat, may we be resolute about turning our intentions into action. It is time to take an account of our carbon footprint and recommit ourselves to environmental action — both through personal reform and national advocacy — before it’s too late.