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05/21/2018 01:18:56 PM


Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld

The Path from Hell to Heaven
Shavuot, 5778

The good news is that when all is said and done it seems that there is only one type of sin that will cause us to be assigned in perpetuity to gehinnom.  

The bad news is that this is a sin that seems pervasive in our society today, especially on social media.  But all is not lost because with enough effort and attention we can avoid this sin.

The Talmud states, “kol hayordin legehinnom olim chutz…mei-hamalbin penei chaveiro berabim, vehamekaneh shem rah lechaveiro, all who go down to Hell eventually ascend except…one who embarrasses someone else in public, and one who calls someone by a hurtful nickname” (Bava Metzia, 58b). 

Tosafot explains that there are three categories of sinners as it relates to Hell:

a) A general sinner goes down to Hell and ascends almost immediately without feeling the effects of the fires of Hell;

b) One who commits a more severe sin and has not repented is assigned to Hell for twelve months;

c) One who publicly embarrasses others and/or calls them by a bad nickname is assigned to Hell and never ascends.  

Tosafot makes another crucial distinction between this category of sin—i.e. embarrassing others through nicknames--and all other sins.  All other sins can only land us in Hell when looked at in the full context of all of our actions, but the particular sin by itself is not enough to assign us to Hell.  However, if we call someone by a negative name, then even if that is our only sin, we are still doomed, “af al pi she-yesh beyado torah umaasim tovim, even if we have otherwise lived a life filled with Torah and good deeds,” we are still assigned to eternal hell.

All other sins one can rise up from and be redeemed, except for embarrassing someone with a bad nickname? Really? It sounds extreme and shocking.  Granted, it’s a sin and a terrible way to act, but in our society we would never equate such a person with say, someone who committed a physical crime.  

Why would the Talmud argue that this alone is the only unredeemable sin?

We all know what it’s like to feel insulted.  It hurts a lot and it is very painful.  But, nonetheless, if hurt feelings are the only thing that is at stake, the Talmud would not have categorized the sin as the worst of all sins.

For the Talmud to speak about this sin in this manner, it must be an existential sin--a sin whose very violation threatens to destroy the entire framework of our society.

That’s what this is about.  To embarrass someone in public and to call a person by a bad nickname, does not only threaten that person, it threatens the skeletal framework of our society.

Our society is built upon the proper use of language.  If we dismiss words as merely words, we are foolishly missing the foundational pillars of our society.  

Words are words and deeds are deeds.  But words lead to deeds.  Worse than that. Misuse of words can eventually lead to horrific deeds taking place on a large scale.  

This is what is so dangerous about a bad nickname.  It signals to the world that we do not have to respect another person.  We don’t have to even call them by their name.

I remember when the Maharat spoke from our pulpit a few months ago about how hurtful and chutzpadik it was for the leaders of the OU to ask her if she would agree to change her title.  Of course, the Maharat was not only referring to her own hurt feelings, but to what that request symbolized for her status and for the status of other women professionals.  

There is an expression, “call me out of my name,” that our beloved neighbor, Michel Martin told us about when we were selling our chametz to her on the eve of Pesach.  This expression likely originated in the African-American community and it means to insult someone and to not even give the person the credit of using his or her own name when speaking to them as a way of demeaning and dehumanizing that person.

We Jews know this all too well.  We know what it means for Jews to be referred to in derogatory language in a manner that signals to the rest of society that it is ok to treat Jews as less than human.  Before the Nazis could kill millions of our relatives they first needed to dehumanize us.  They used language as a tool to prepare the ground for their killing machines.

This is the reason why our Talmud teaches that we need to be hyper vigilant about language; the words we use set the tone for our entire society.

On a personal note, this is why on May 1, I entered a breakfast of the DC City Council while wearing my tallit (sacred prayer shawl), raised my voice, and said, “Shame on you” to the members of the Council.

As background: Councilmember Trayon White had argued that the “Rothschilds” control the weather and he then followed up that behavior with other disrespectful actions.  Subsequently, supporters of CM White held a “unity rally” on the steps of City Hall at which Jews were called termites by an attendee.  

Too often, in our history, we Jews have been murdered because of language like this and because of crazy conspiracy theories that sound ridiculous, like the wild theory that Jews control the weather.  When we hear this being spouted by a Council Member, an elected official in our own city, we fear the worst.  At that breakfast I said to CM White that he endangered my children with his extraordinarily irresponsible language.

Actually, this is not just a DC Council issue, but also a citywide issue.  Moving forward, I would like to remember the pain and concern that I felt when I read about these comments and pledge to speak out against any DC official who speaks in this manner about any ethnicity or race.   

Bigotry is not something that remains isolated.  It can spread like a wildfire and leave behind many innocent victims.  It is our job to call it out by name, directly, forcefully, and immediately. 

And we have to be consistent.

Just like it’s not acceptable for other folks to talk about Jews like this, we too, cannot talk about others in a derogatory fashion.  For example, it is not ok for members of the Israeli cabinet to refer to African refugees as “infiltrators” or as a “cancer.” On my last trip to Israel, I met some African refugees personally and I feel very close to them.  When we hear such vile language being used we should cry and then we should feel obligated to raise a voice against it. 

But it is not just morally wrong.  It is extremely dangerous for our society.

If we don’t react strongly to this type of language and make clear that hurtful language is extraordinarily dangerous then indeed our entire society can quickly collapse into a mob society.

We see a world around us where elected leaders in our own country are increasingly using this language.  This is a development that we also see on social media via twitter wars using ad hominem insults.  This is not ok.  It is very scary to see.  It is our responsibility as Jews to be better and to model better behavior.

When the Talmud says that such a sinner is going to hell and not ascending, what it means is that these matters will define us for eternity.  I think when we go up to the heavenly court, we will be judged not only on the way we acted with those whom we agreed, but also about how we speak to others and about others—and especially those with whom we disagree.   We can surely disagree on matters of substance when necessary, but because the issues we are disagreeing about are so important for this very reason our expressions of disagreement must not devolve into bad nicknames and cynical and hurtful rhetoric.

The Talmud explicitly states that hurting someone with words is worse than stealing their money, because, “zeh begufo, vezeh bemamono, this one is with the body, and this one is [only] with money” (ibid).

Maybe the Talmud is just making a rhetorical point and speaking with the rhetorical flourish of a preacher trying to get people to behave better, or maybe the Talmud understands that the wounds caused by this type of bullying language are actually so deep that the pain can never be fixed.  In the Talmud’s language, “zeh lo nitan lehishavon.”

R. Shlomo Ganzfried, in his Kitzur Shulchan Arukh (1864), says that one must be especially careful not to speak in a hurtful way towards one’s wife, because “a woman is by nature sensitive and speaking harshly could cause her to cry, and Hashem Yisboruch is vigilant about a person’s tears” (siman, 63).

I apologize for the fact that this quote will—ironically--strike some as paternalistic and perhaps insult some folks.  But R. Ganzfried is saying that the prohibition especially applies to women because women are especially sensitive.  Well, that means it especially applies to anyone who is sensitive.  

Today we are all super-sensitive. The upshot of this teaching from R. Ganzfried is that because of our increased sensitivity in the world today we have to invest more of our time and resources into making sure we don’t hurt others with our language.  It is our responsibility to go out of our way in order to be sensitive to others.

I have been publicly critical of what I felt was a muted reaction by the DC Council and Mayor Muriel Bowser to the language used about Jews on this matter.  I have felt that they weren’t vigilant enough at the outset and I was worried for our city.  

But this past week the Mayor and her staff moved me.  The Mayor organized an event with CM Brianne Nadeau that I was privileged to be invited to attend.  There were approximately 40 religious and ethnic leaders from around the city that attended a sensitivity workshop led by Operation Understanding DC.  It was a powerful and emotional gathering.  I felt proud that our city was investing the time and resources to help different ethnic groups understand each other.  I personally learned a lot.  On one side I sat next to a Reverend from Ward 8 and on the other side a scholar from the National Museum of African American History and Culture and we had important and honest conversations about racism and anti-Semitism.

I was also moved that the Mayor came to the event and stayed the entire time.  It inspired me that she also underwent the sensitivity training along with everyone else in the room.  This showed to me that it is a priority of hers that our city improves dramatically in this area.  Of course we have an enormous amount of more work to do in this area, but I felt it was an important start.

I am sure that the Mayor’s office will have some follow-up to that event, but in the meantime, I want to make my own personal contributions in this area and I have made three commitments:

1) I am going to do a better job of showing up at the Mayor’s Interfaith Council meetings.  I feel that it is important to be a presence there interacting with other clergy.

2) A candidate for Council tweeted out that DC schools should make sure there is cultural competency.  In response to that, I tweeted that I volunteer to visit any DC school that invites me to speak about Judaism.  

3) I contacted my new friend at the African American Museum of History and Culture and said that I would like to arrange for a tour of the museum by members of our congregation and a separate tour by some local rabbis.  

Today we read the book of Ruth.  The two main characters of the book are Boaz and Ruth, the great grandparents of the messiah.

The “neighbors” that appear in the book of Ruth speak in a coarse fashion.  They say about Naami, “hazot naami, is this naami” (1:19)?  In other words, they were mocking her, how can she be sweet; she looks awful!

Not so Boaz and Ruth.  Their words are beautiful.  Boaz’ first ever recorded words are spoken to his laborers in the field.  Yet, he addresses them with great dignity and says, “Hashem imachem, May God be with you” (2:4).  So too, he calls Ruth an “eishet chayil, a woman of strength” (3:11).  Others might have called Ruth a moabite or a maid or even a derogatory term which we sometimes hear today—a shiksa; but the father of the Messiah addresses her with great honor.  To him she is an eishet chayil!

Ruth in turn, praises Boaz for his sensitive words.  She thanks him, “ki dibartah al lev shifchatekh, because you spoke to the heart of your maidservant” (2:13).

King David came from the union of two people who knew how to speak to each other with great dignity.

Ultimately when we come before our Maker that is what we will be judged on—the language we used.  How did we speak to and about others?  Are we the true children of Boaz and Ruth?  

Ultimately, our faith is about bringing redemption to the world.  The path to that redemption begins with the language we use and the words we choose to fill our world.  It is the choice of words we use that ultimately will lead us on our path to Heaven.

Mon, July 13 2020 21 Tammuz 5780