Thought for the Day: Simchat Torah 2022
“God spoke the universe into existence, to teach us the immeasurable power of words.”
“Not everything I think should be said, not everything I say should be written, and not everything I write should be published.” These words rang true when taught by Rabbi Yisrael Salanter in the 1870s. They are more timely than ever today, when, at the press of a button, countless thoughts are published with barely a thought about the consequences.
This week, Twitter and Instagram blocked the accounts of popular rap artist, Kanye West, who had posted a series of antisemitic rants on social media. This included a post to his 31 million followers on Twitter, in which West said that he was “going death con 3 On JEWISH PEOPLE”, which the Jewish Chronicle interpreted as a move to “declare metaphorical war on the Jews.”
This week is National Hate Crime Awareness Week, which highlights the harm which hate crime causes not only to its victims, but to the stability of our society.
Hate crime doesn’t just appear out of thin air. Joseph Goebbels infamously referred to “the power of words to clothe and disguise,” and it was the purposeful normalising of hate speech that created the foundation on which the Holocaust was constructed.
Language matters because invariably, when tribalism inspires hate speech, hate crime is only one step away.
This is one of the lessons of the forthcoming Jewish festival of Simchat Torah, which marks the moment when the annual public reading cycle of the Torah ends and immediately recommences with the book of Genesis. There we will read about the dysfunctionality of the first family on earth. The Bible tells us, “And Cain spoke to Abel his brother”, followed immediately by, “Cain rose up against Abel and slew him.” Cain’s verbal tirade against Abel, filled with jealousy and animosity, led directly to the first hate crime on earth.
But just as language can be desecrated, it can also be sanctified. The opening passages of Genesis also provide hope. The creation narrative describes how the world was formed with ten statements. God did not simply will the Universe into existence but rather He said, “Let there be light”, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures”, “Let us create people in our image and in our likeness”.
God spoke the universe into existence, to teach us the immeasurable power of words. Just as they can be used to denigrate and destroy, so too words can be used to create and nurture.
The very first lesson of the Bible is a call to us to choose our words carefully so that we can build bridges of hope and peace together.