Guarding Our Tongues

This Friday, a message from Acting Executive Director Nahma Nadich.

As I sat in shul on Yom Kippur this year, joining with my community in the traditional vidui (confession) of the Al Chet repeated ten times throughout the day, I was struck by how many sins on that long list have to do with speech. For the sin we have committed before you with the utterance of our lips, through harsh speech, with impurity of speech, through foolish talk, with evil talk, with the idle chatter of our lips, through tale-bearing, through swearing in vain. And there are still more (i.e. verbal confession, false denial and lying, scoffing impudence, passing judgment) where speaking is implied.

I’ve always been fascinated by the dominance of speech on this list, and the lengthy enumeration of the many categories of sins related to it. The author seems to be warning us that we as human beings we can inflict such grievous harm on one another through speaking that each variation on this theme must be spelled out.

I take great comfort in reciting all of these sins in the plural, and in knowing that I am not the only one in my community cringing at the recitation of these particular transgressions (perhaps more than some others, like bribe taking and embezzlement!). Who among us hasn’t been judgmental or condescending, or lashed out impulsively in anger? Who hasn’t inadvertently caused pain, inflicting unintentional wounds with our words? Who hasn’t repeated (or reposted) something without scrupulously confirming its veracity, and who hasn’t shared something that even if true, could cause great damage? The Al Chet is my yearly reminder that speech can serve as a weapon in myriad ways, and that diligence is required in guarding my tongue against evil.

This year, while I temporarily serve as Executive Director of JCRC, I find myself reflecting not only on my personal actions, but on the actions of this organization, which in the words of our mission statement is the “representative voice of the organized Jewish community”. Given that weighty charge, what should be our guideposts in speaking on behalf of our community? What sins must we take great care to avoid committing? Permit me to suggest a few.

1. For the sin of ill-timed speech

Since so much of our work is by its nature reactive to unfolding events in our community and beyond, we frequently make rapid judgments about when to speak out. And sometimes we miss the mark. Speaking too quickly can mean that we haven’t sufficiently thought through the consequences of our words on all parts of the community. Waiting too long to speak can mean that we missed a moment when our community desperately needed to hear from us on an issue of grave concern.

2. For the sin of speaking when we should have remained silent

With the pressure of a never-ending news cycle to which we are all glued, we can succumb to the pressure to comment on a story that is still unfolding. We can make assumptions that are not borne out by facts once they are fully known.

3. For the sin of speech that is not representative

As the representative voice of the organized Jewish community, we go to great lengths to ensure that we are capturing the opinions, values, and sensibilities of that body. To be clear, we do not claim to represent the Boston Jewish community in general (how could anyone possibly do so?) but we are obligated to get it right in representing our organizations on policy issues. So we consult with our organizational Council members and check in frequently between scheduled meetings. But we can still get it wrong, and speak out in ways that are at best insensitive and at worst, hurtful, to parts of our community.

As we enter 5780, a year I fear will be no less fraught or complicated for our People, locally and around the world, we commit ourselves anew to listening carefully to our constituents and to speaking on their behalf when the time demands it of us, thoughtfully and respectfully. And to be transparent about our failures should we miss the mark. We hope to count on you to inform our decisions and to keep sharing your reflections with us.

Wishing us all a 5780 that inspires us to be our best individual and organizational selves.

Shabbat shalom and chag sameach,

Nahma