I am starting this post with tribulation. The reason is that I am not at all sure that the minor event that happened yesterday would be as distressing to my readers as it was to me. I am really curious to see by reactions to this post if I am living in a dreamland, or if other people have similar sentiments.
So, to the story:
Yesterday night I chanced upon a place which I used to visit a lot when I worked in the Union Square vicinity. I was walking to the subway when I saw this little oasis of yesteryear – the small, charming children’s book store, Books of Wonder, which reminds me of the scene from the movie I still like – You’ve Got Mail!. The main character there asks the clerk something like – “they cost so much?” (books). The answer is “they are worth so much”.
That’s the kind of a store I walk in – beautiful books for the children of all ages, interesting pictures and writing essentials, old books – first editions, etc. I decide to buy a couple of books as presents for the upcoming birthday of a certain soon-to-be six-year-old very close to my heart.
I notice that there is a reading or an author event during my browsing the shelves. While paying and waiting for the books to be gift-wrapped, I hear the author speaking to a small audience, not really paying much attention. Until I hear her using a curse word in the middle of her speech! At first, I am in total shock. When I ask a young lady at the register if that is really an author of a children’s book, I get the answer – “of books for teenagers”. Calmly, totally not understanding what’s the big deal here. Meanwhile, I am pretty much in tears. Here I am, in a fairytale looking bookstore for children. All I can master is to say that this is my last visit to this oasis of calm, charm and intelligence.
When we talk about the commandments (mitzvoth) and about tikun olam we are so quick to point out that we should think about everyone as our brothers and sisters, not only Jews. I have no idea if the author was Jewish, most likely not, but it got me to think about the many times I heard these words come out of my friends’ mouths. If we, as Jews can’t offer an example, what can we ask of others?
Among the mitzvot that will bring us to “life and good”, don’t we have an obligation to be civil, at least? In fact, Talmud (Ketubot 8b) explicitly states that “anyone who profanes his mouth and issues a matter of profanity from his mouth, even if a positive decree of seventy years was sealed for him, it is transformed for him into an evil (decree)”.
That is why my Lord Will not spare their youths, Nor show compassion To their orphans and widows; For all are ungodly and wicked, And every mouth speaks impiety.
יט הַעִדֹתִי בָכֶם הַיּוֹם, אֶת-הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת-הָאָרֶץ–הַחַיִּים וְהַמָּוֶת נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ, הַבְּרָכָה וְהַקְּלָלָה; וּבָחַרְתָּ, בַּחַיִּים–לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה, אַתָּה וְזַרְעֶךָ.
|19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that thou mayest live, thou and thy seed;|
|20 to love the LORD thy God, to hearken to His voice, and to cleave unto Him; for that is thy life, and the length of thy days; that thou mayest dwell in the land which the LORD swore unto thy fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.|
Today, when we read about blessings and curses, maybe we should think about the way we speak because it inevitably brings us to our actions that will be affected by our speech.
Maybe the reason that Moses’ speech during his last days on earth is called שִּׁירָה (song), and not just “words” is because of its ultimate beauty even when he was admonishing the people. They came from love.
ל וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה, בְּאָזְנֵי כָּל-קְהַל יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֶת-דִּבְרֵי הַשִּׁירָה, הַזֹּאת–עַד, תֻּמָּם.
|30 And Moses spoke in the ears of all the assembly of Israel the words of this song, until they were finished:|
The young (I think) author’s words from that cute store was missing precisely this – love. Love for her audience, her readers, her parents that, I am sure weren’t teaching her this kind of language, the world.
Let us all try not only proclaim love but practice it. Let us leave at least some sacred spaces in our lives – a bookstore, a school, a park, a shul, and ultimately, The Temple. May we merit to see it in our times!
For the real wisdom of the Torah, I encourage you to read Rabbi Sacks’ great commentary.
P.S. I have just read this beautiful d’var Torah from my colleague Dr. Ackerman, and decided to share it with you too.