Parshat Ki Tavo: Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8; Isaiah 60:1-22.
One of my favorite tales centers around Rabbi Chaim of Brisk who was traveling on a train, sharing a compartment with a group of stylishly dressed people. The rabbi was dressed modestly.
Throughout the trip the passengers made disparaging comments to one another about the rabbi, never attempting to talk to him. They only talked about him, rudely whispering back and forth.
Once the train arrived, the travelers noticed a crowd of people gathered around the rabbi to excitedly welcome him. Only then, they understood how important he was. Feeling embarrassed, the travelers begged the rabbi for forgiveness. “We didn’t realize who you are,” they declared. The rabbi responded, “Please, you do not need to ask forgiveness of me. Instead, I suggest you ask forgiveness of the many good people you thought I was.”
Judaism is a religion that puts tremendous value on words. After all, this is how God creates the world in the very beginning. For God said: “Let there be light” and so it was.
In this week’s Torah portion, we learn about a sacred ceremony focused on words. One of the earliest celebrations to be observed after our ancestors arrived in the Land of Israel involved the presentation of first fruits to the Almighty. The Israelites were instructed to recite a short, yet powerful, formulaic summary of Jewish history. The words hearken back to the Book of Genesis, recalling Jacob’s father-in-law Laban, who was determined to use his words to oppress and annihilate the emerging and evolving Israelite nation.
Words have power and can be used for evil as well as good. They can harm but they also can heal. This is the moment on the Jewish calendar, as we approach Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year 5781, when we are urged to consider seriously every single word that comes out of our mouths. During these Days of Awe, we ask forgiveness from those who we have hurt with our words through gossip, slander and other mistruths we have spread, both accidentally and on purpose.
With the onset of the High Holidays, mixed with the overwhelming stress and anxiety caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is the perfect time to get into the habit of consciously seeing the absolute goodness in one another.
Building people up with loving words is so much better than tearing them down. In this spirit, may we each create for ourselves a space where there is no room for put-downs but only for put-ups. A put-up is an offering of kindness, compassion and encouragement by telling a family member, friend, neighbor or stranger what we like most about them.
Imagine how great the world would be if we each took a moment to offer one sincere put-up each day. So, what are we waiting for? Just do it!
Rabbi Joseph H. Krakoff is the senior director at the Jewish Hospice and Chaplaincy Network.