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Parsha Chayei Sarah

November 29, 2016

Words of Love
Chayei Sarah, 5777
Shmuel Herzfeld

Giving thanks is an important part of our faith.

We say “thank You,” to God during the modim prayer of the amidah three times a day.

But it is even more than that.

During the repetition of the amidah one is not supposed to speak other than to respond Amen at the end of a blessing. We are supposed to listen intently to the words of the chazzan. The one major exception to this rule is when it comes time for the modim prayer of thanksgiving to Hashem. At that time we are obligated to recited, “modim derabanan (thanksgiving of the rabbis).”

The Talmud tells us:

“When the representative of the community says, “modim,” what do the people say?
Rav says: ‘We are grateful to you Hashem, our God, for giving us the ability to be connected to You and to thank You.’
Shmuel says: ‘God of all creatures, we are grateful to You.’
Rav Simai says: ‘The Creator of the world, we are grateful to You.’
Nehardai says: ‘Blessings and thanks to Your great name for sustaining us, we are grateful to you.’
Rav Acha b. Yaakov would conclude: ‘So may You sustain us and gather us in to Your holy courtyard to guard Your teachings and to do Your will with a complete heart, we are grateful to you.’
Rav Pappa says, ‘Therefore we should recite all of these phrases’” (Sotah, 40a).

R. Yosef Caro (16th century) writes that we call this prayer modim derabanan because it was formulated by combining the prayer of multiple rabbis (Beit Yosef, 127).

Abudraham (14th c.) explains that when it comes to expressing thanks we must verbalize it ourselves. It does not suffice for us to have a representative who expresses thanks on our behalf; instead, we must each express thanks on our own. Thus, it is this prayer alone that we must recite during the repetition of amidah.

So important is it for us to express gratitude that this prayer interrupts the amidah. At a time when generally speaking we are supposed to be quiet and listening to the words of our appointed agent, we interrupt the chazan’s words with or own words in order to offer our own praise and gratitude.

The way we use our words is a core value of spirituality.


A major difference between a wicked person (rasha) and a righteous person (tzaddik) is in the way they use their words.

The Talmud contrasts the way Avraham speaks with the way Efron speaks.

Avraham said, “I will give you a little bit of bread,” and in the end he ran to bring meat to his honored guests (Bereishit 18:5-6). On the other hand, Efron seems to offer an entire field to Avraham for free (23:15) and in the end he takes an exorbitant amount of money for the field—four hundred shekel, of the highest quality, which most likely exceeded the actual value of the field (23:16; and see Midrash Tanchuma, Vayera 4).

Says the Talmud, tzadikim omrim me’at ve’osim harbeh, reshaim omrim harbeh ve-afilu me’at einam osim, the righteous say a little, but do a lot. The wicked say a lot and do a little” (Bava Metzi’a, 87a).

We see from this teaching that the language we use is an indication of whether or not we are to be considered righteous or wicked. If we use our language to express gratitude to Hashem and to others then we are acting properly. If we understate our accomplishments, then we are also acting in a righteous manner. But if, Gd forbid, we use our language in a boastful manner and make promises that we do not fulfill, then we are walking in the path of the wicked.

As bad as it is to speak boastfully and not fulfill our promises it is far worse to actually hurt people with our language.

If we are hurtful to others with our words, then we are actually in violation of a black letter law that our Torah commands of us.

Says the Talmud, “ke’shem sheona’ah be mekach umemkar, kach ona’ah bedevarim, just like there is a prohibition to hurt someone in business, so too there is a prohibition to hurt someone with words” (Bava Metzi’a, 58b).

The commentators wonder about the language being used. Why does it need to say the word, “ke’shem”? Why does it need to compare the two prohibitions? Why doesn’t it just say that it is prohibited to hurt someone with our language?

Bach explains (Choshen Mishpat, 228:1) that the Torah explicitly mentions the prohibition of taking advantage of someone in business, ona’at mamon, but the prohibition of vexing someone with words, ona’at devarim, is not explicit. Thus, the Mishnah uses the word ke’shem, to tell us that the two prohibitions are of equal seriousness.

Actually, the Talmud tells us that ona’at devarim is significantly worse than ona’at mamon. If one violates ona’at mammon then one can rectify the damage by repaying the money. However, the damage caused by ona’at devarim cannot be rectified. Indeed, the Talmud tells us that this sin is so severe that there are only 3 sins for which if a person violates any of them that they cannot ascend from gehinnom. Two of the three sins relate directly to ona’at devarim: embarrassing a person, and calling someone by a derogatory name.

What is the nature of this sin of ona’at devarim?

The Talmud gives us examples of how one can violate the prohibition (Bava Metzi’a, 58b):

a) If one who has no interest in purchasing something says to a merchant, how much for this product? This is prohibited because it causes pain to the merchant because he will assume that it is his inadequacy as a salesman that prevented the sale from happening.
b) One is not permitted to say to a “baal teshuvah: remember how you used to behave.”
c) One may not say to a convert: “remember how your parents used to behave.” In other words, one is not only forbidden from reminding a person of their sinful actions, but also of their ancestors’ sins.
d) If a potential convert comes to study Torah one may not say, “can the mouth that has eaten pork and rodents now study Torah?”
e) If a person is sick with bodily afflictions or if their child has died, one cannot say to them like the friends of Job said to him: “Halo yiratkhah kislatekhah, your lack of faith has caused these things to happen” (Job 4:6, as understood by Tosafot).

The common denominator in all of these examples is that the person who is being afflicted with our words is extremely vulnerable. The Baal Teshuvah knows that we have done things in our life that we are not proud of. The Baal Teshuvah is in pain about that. The convert feels insecure because his ancestors are different than everyone else. The person whose child has died is in tremendous emotional pain, as is the sick person.

On some level all of these people can too easily be marginalized by society. While it is prohibited to use such language with anyone, it is especially forbidden to speak this way to a vulnerable person.

As part of a spiritual community we can never use such language – not in speaking to anyone, and not in speaking about anyone.

But to reach our potential as a spiritual community its not enough for us to merely avoid such language. We need to take an extra step and be a spiritual presence in the world that fights against any usage of such language. We need to be a force for good.

When we see people using such language that marginalizes and threatens others, then we need to respond and be a force of love that embraces the vulnerable.

This is why we went to a church this past Sunday.

After Episcopal Church of Our Savior was desecrated with racist graffiti and a racist sign last week we went to stand with them in solidarity. We visited them earlier in the week and the Rector invited us back to meet everyone on Sunday. Our plan was to stand outside and offer ice cream to the worshippers at the Spanish language service (since the Rector told us that they were especially frightened).

When we arrived there, the Rector invited us to wait in the social hall as it was cold outside. 
I was so lifted by the fact that so many people from our congregation joined together on a Sunday to raise a voice of solidarity with this church.

While everyone waited downstairs, 
I was given the honor of addressing the congregation. I explained why there were more than 75 people from our congregation waiting for them in the social hall. I said we cannot tolerate any racist language and that an attack upon their church was also an attack upon us. 
Then I looked up and what I saw choked me up. I saw that this beautiful church had hung a sign from their ceiling that was made by our youth department that said in Hebrew and English, "Love Your Neighbor!"

As the worshippers came downstairs we all danced together and sang beautiful tunes that we taught everyone. We sang the Spanish version of Yachad, Untos. In the spirit of Abraham, we were fully embraced by the worshippers who all thanked us for coming and asked us to sing more!

Speaking up is not always easy.

In preparing for our January trip to Selma I have been reading up about the actions of the Selma Jewish community in 1965. Many members of the Selma Jewish community spoke out against racism at that time. But too many did not. Some even sided with the Klan and served as their apologists. Others cited economic or political reasons for not speaking out against racism.

There is always a reason not to speak up.

But our Torah commands us to walk in the path of the righteous. The righteous do not use language to marginalize the vulnerable. The path of the righteous commands us to respond to despicable language with acts of warmth and love.

Our visit to this church showed me that our congregation is capable of being a force for good in the world. When we see such language against the vulnerable, we will respond with words of love and embrace. And one person, and one congregation at a time, we will change the world for the better.

Going back to the modim derabanan, different rabbis had different versions of what to say. And Rav Pappa came along and said, “therefore, lets rule like everyone and say the thanksgiving prayer of all of them combined.”

The Gaon of Teplik says that this is something that Rav Pappa does ten times in the Talmud. When there is a dispute he says, “lets rule like everyone.” For this reason, when we complete a tractate of the Talmud, and we make a siyyum, we honor Rav Pappa by listing the names of his children. He figured out how to make space for everyone, and so we make space for him in our studies.

In this world, we need to be Rav Pappa Jews. We need to be the Modim of the Rabbis. We need to use our words to heal and protect the vulnerable.

Protecting the vulnerable: that is the path to spiritual greatness.



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