Rabbis Without Borders
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In my eyes, the most meaningful and relevant interpretation of the verse from Proverbs 18:21 that teaches, “Death and life are in the hands of the tongue,” begins with a reference to the book of Ben Sira that tells of “One who found a glowing ember and blew upon it, lighting up a flame. Then he spat upon it and it was extinguished.”
Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, in his work Sefat Emet (Language of Truth), reminds us of the mystical teaching that there are sparks, embers of truth, everywhere. They are scattered throughout the world, little, partial shards of God’s truth, of divinity.
We are all capable, he tells us, “Of fulfilling the potential of these sparks.” Many times, however, we fail. We spit upon the sparks and they go out. We trample them. We come upon an idea, an ideology, a narrative, that is foreign or repugnant to us and we denigrate it, we nullify it, we belittle it. We deny that it has any validity. That is what it means when it is written that “Death is in the hands of the tongue.”
But there is another way. We can come upon a difficult position, one that stands in contrast and in conflict with what we believe, and we can blow gently upon it. That means that we will struggle to recognize the little shard of uncomfortable truth that it may contain. We can try to reach across the aisle charitably, in an effort to judge favorably the people and platforms that we encounter there. We can massage their truth until we see its possible redeeming qualities until we see how it may complement our own truth and add depth or nuance. We can begin to see its legitimacy, and even find room in our minds and our hearts to make some of it our own. Instead of relating to the unfamiliar sparks as a threat and attempting to extinguish them, we can gather the strength to fan the embers and thereby warm and illumine our souls by the heat and light of their flames.
This does not mean to deny our own truth, but it does mean to retreat from the haughtiness of exclusivity. We continue to stand on the foundations of our own truth but we come to see that even it is only partial and in need of additional and complementary perspectives.
This is the meaning of the words “Life is in the hands of the tongue.” As the Sefat Emet says, “We have the power to awaken the life that lies everywhere”.
In doing so we become more God-like and we walk in God’s footsteps. If you read between the lines of the formulations of the mystics, they can be interpreted as saying that God is the kaleidoscope of all the partial truths of the universe, always re-balancing and re-adjusting to each other. To bring more and more partial truths into our hearts and souls is to make ourselves more like God.
Furthermore, God created humanity by breathing life into Adam’s nostrils and making a “speaking spirit.” We can harness the breath of our speaking spirit to support, justify and legitimize people and ideas, thereby doing as God did, and bringing more and more life to this world.
It is much easier to use our tongue and the breath of our speech to bring death, to denigrate, ridicule and reject. It is easy to justify such behavior by highlighting the patent “falsehood” and “danger” of Republicans or Democrats, liberals or conservatives, atheists or fundamentalists, men or women. It happens all the time, unfortunately, even among the best of us.
Bringing life to the ideas and people that we oppose and that oppose us is much more difficult. The Sefat Emet calls it “toil.” The process demands humility and a deep examination of those positions, beliefs, and narratives, as well as of our own. It requires a true openness that may lead to a realigning of perspectives. You never know where the process may lead; at times the struggle may be gut-wrenching.
I have lived for over 35 years – and continue to live – in an environment in which our Jewish and Zionist identities are bolstered by ignoring and denying – trampling upon – Palestinian truth. We spit, sometimes almost literally, at the Palestinian narrative. We are blithely and self-assuredly unaware of any truth other than our own.
And then, only quite recently, I “Woke up.” Today I endeavor to blow gently upon the sparks of Palestinian truth that I encounter, despite the fact that it sometimes feels as if I am denying a little part of who I am. Great ‘tzimtzum’, self-contraction, is required. I listen to my Palestinian friends without judgment and try to place myself within their narrative, to see things from their vantage point. It is sometimes painful to the point of spiritual nausea; it can be disorienting and destabilizing. I feel as if I am losing my balance and about to fall. I struggle to come to terms with the fact that my truth is not the only truth, to find room inside to hold another truth, to locate space in my identity for another identity. I slowly learn to admit and to accept that there is something right in what my community has taught me for decades that is completely wrong.
Out of such introspective self-contraction are born new vistas of understanding, a broader and more expansive identity that embraces both sides. It is not based on denial of the other, but on respect for both.
There is an exhilarating sense of seeing a larger truth, larger than each side on its own can see. There is a sense of approaching a more divine perspective. It is a dizzying place to be, but there is no other way if we are ever going to live in peace and reconciliation in this tiny sliver of land that we both call home.