These are the most important 10 days of the Jewish calendar—the time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur when we negotiate with God—making the case that we are worthy to be inscribed in the Book of Life for yet another year.
The biggest part of that process involves t’shuvah—repentance. We try to be honest about things we have done wrong and need to do better during the coming year.
That is obviously a very personal negotiation and each of us has very different issues to consider as part our heshbon ha nefesh—the examination of our soul.
But as a people, I would suggest that this is a time when all Jews need to look not just at what we do during the coming year but at what we say and how we say it.
The Jewish tradition has always been obsessed with the destructive potential of speech. Of the 43 sins enumerated in the Al Chait confession we recite on Yom Kippur, 11 of them are related to speech. The Talmud tells that the tongue is an instrument so dangerous that God designed us in a way so it is hidden from view and behind two protective walls (the mouth and teeth) to prevent its misuse.
In the book of Leviticus, there is a specific prohibition against rechilut—being a tale-bearer. The Hebrew word rechil refers to a trader or a merchant. A tale-bearer—a biblical reference to a blogger or talk show host—is someone who deals in information instead of other goods. Long before there was talk radio, cable news, and the internet the Torah--the Hebrew Bible understood that information is not idle chatter. It is a product. It is real.
The gravest type of rechilut is lashon hara which literally means “the evil tongue.” It is the practice of discrediting or saying negative things about a person even if those things are true. A person who spreads slander or untrue negative information about a person is considered the lowest of the low—a motzi shem ra--one who delivers a bad name. Many commentators rank these people on the same scale as murderers and far worse than thieves since the money or property stolen by a thief can be replaced but a person’s good reputation never recovers from slander.
There is a well-known story about a rabbi who was asked how one could repent for spreading vicious slander. He replied that it was like trying to put the feathers back in a pillow that has been ripped open during a windstorm. It simply can't be done.
The great Chasidic rabbi the Chofetz Chayim was preoccupied with the evils of lashon hara—so much so that it is said he would stay inside his house for weeks at a time because he found it impossible to go out in public without being exposed to evil gossip. Today, he wouldn’t be safe even in his home. He’d have to turn off his TV, throw away his radio, and shut down his email and the internet as well.
Throughout history, no people has suffered more from sinat chinam—baseless hatred—than the Jews. That hatred has come both from within and outside our community. Many of our sages say that the First Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed due to our sins against God but the Second Temple was destroyed due to sinat chinam—baseless hatred shown toward each other by differing groups of Jews.
Over the years, anti-Semitism grew and thrived based on lies that were spread by those who hated Jews more than they loved the truth. These bigots justified their prejudice by claiming that Jews were financial pariahs, murdered Jesus, used the blood of gentile children to make their Passover matzahs and a variety of other hateful slurs. Without these lies and those who willingly spread them, history might look very different.
American Jews have always taken pride in knowing that in the area of politics and public affairs we have been the most sophisticated, influential, and intellectually honest minority group in our country’s history.
But on this Yom Kippur there is reason for concern. The politics of rumor, innuendo, and lies—sinat chinam—is on the rise in our community and it hurts us all.
Former President Bush was a victim of this type of treatment. After Bush visited Yad Vashem, a prominent Jewish blogger wrote that "the President cares about dead Jews. Live Jews--not so much."
During last year's presidential campaign, nine leaders of non-partisan Jewish organizations signed a letter condemning the smear campaigns aimed at Jewish voters that had been launched against President Obama. They took this action not because they supported Obama politically but because they understood the danger of these lies.
What started as fallacious emails claiming that Mr. Obama is a secret Muslim who cavorts with Jew haters has actually ramped up since his election as our president. It has now made its way to semi-respectable websites and the pages of the Jerusalem Post. In several pieces by Jewish authors our president is associated with Islam, Jew hatred, and anti-Israel sentiment ignoring his voting record, statements on Israel, and commitment to fighting anti-Semitism.
Sinat Chinam spills into our community’s internal discourse as well. Hatespeech and uncivil conversation are on the rise. A good friend of mine just quit her job in our Congressman's office in part because she couldn’t take the daily barrage of obscene and hateful phone calls she was fielding on a daily basis.
Jewish Democratic leader Ira N. Forman wrote an insightful article about the rise of hatespeech within the Jewish community. He reported that he had received calls from fellow Jews accusing him of being "a liar and a stooge for the Hitlerite appeasement of Islamofascism."
Jewish Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson cites ominious comparisons between the tactics of today's promoters of hatred and the brilliant propaganda breakthoughs that enabled Hitler to promote his evil agenda.
Speaking of blast emails and the internet in general, Gerson says "the least responsible contributors see their darkest tendencies legitimated and reinforced, while serious voices are driven away by the general ugliness."
Being Jewish has always involved rising above the trends taking place in the broader community and holding ourselves to a higher standard—the standard that has caused us to survive as a people committed to civil discourse and Tikkun Olam--repairing the world.
This year, it is important to our country and also to our biblical commandment to be or l’goyim—a light unto the nations—for us to commit ourselves to focus on what we say and how we say it during the coming year.
It’s not about being politically correct—it’s about doing God’s work and fulfilling our most important Jewish traditions.
May you and your families have a happy, healthy, and rewarding new year.