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Rabbi Deborah Blausten

Behar - Bekhukkotai- Words That Burn

You can listen to Rabbi Deborah's sermon or read it below:

I want to tell you a story about a woman named Imma Shalom. Mother of Peace. She’s one of the few women to be named in the Talmud, she’s only mentioned four times, but it’s not quantity that matters here, it’s quality, and Imma Shalom delivers a lesson in Torah and in daily life that feels particularly relevant for this moment in time.

Imma Shalom had pretty solid connections, her brother was Rabban Gamliel, who was the head of the yeshiva, the rabbinic academy. Her husband was Rabbi Eliezer, one of our greatest sages. The academy, like so much of Jewish life, was a family business, and the sages sparred over Torah and then ate their meals together, celebrated together, and in theory figured out together how to build a world that is true to the Torah’s vision.

Except something went horribly wrong when Rabbi Eliezer had a dispute over a legal issue with the other sages. The argument ended nastily with the rabbis overruling Rabbi Eliezer and he was expelled from the academy and excommunicated. They took all of the things that he had declared ritually pure and burned them in fire, other traditions say that they erased his name from everything that he had taught. They didn’t just disagree with him, they made sure they defamed and erased his name, and unsurprisingly he was beyond upset. 

According to the Talmud, when Rabbi Akiva went to tell Rabbi Eliezer what happened, he began to cry, and he was so hurt that his tears were transformed and his eyes literally shot fire, destroying crops and turning dough sour. His pain is described in the Talmud as a ripple through the universe. His brother in law, Rabban Gamliel the head of the yeshiva, was on a boat and the sea became unbearably choppy and raged from Eliezer’s pain.

And Imma Shalom was scared, she could see how powerful and deep this pain could be, and she knew something else. Because of what she knew, she did everything she could to prevent her husband from praying the tachanun prayer, a special petitionary prayer. One day, she left her husband by accident unsupervised, and when she returned home she found him bowing in prayer, she was devastated because she understood what her husband would have prayed for, and she knew that God would grant it. And so she asked her husband to rise, telling him that he had killed her brother. As he did so, the sound of the shofar came from the yeshiva, announcing Rabban Gamliel’s death.

Rabbi Eliezer asked his wife how she knew that her brother had died, that his prayers had been answered, and she replied with a teaching that echoes through time. ‘I received from the house of the father of my father: since the temple was destroyed all the gates of heaven are locked, except for the gates of prayer for the victims of verbal mistreatment’.

This story is the conclusion of a long discussion in the tractate bava metzia that begins with a text from our parasha this week. Right before the portion that Harry read, there are a list of rules for business between Israelites. In that list, the Torah states twice, that ‘brothers should not wrong one another’. 

The rabbis asked, why is this commandment repeated, and they then explain that one instance refers to business transactions, and ‘ona’a’ which is fraud or mistreatment in financial matters, and the other to onaa’at devarim, verbal mistreatment. 

And so it teaches- just as there is a prohibition against exploitation in buying and selling, so there is against verbal mistreatment. But, they are not the same, for monetary or financial exploitation is given to restitution, and verbal mistreatment is not. You can pay back money, but you can’t unsay words.

In fact, says the Talmud, so serious is this issue that it is better for a person to cast themselves into a fiery furnace than shame another in public. 

The gates of prayer are closed, there’s no more God acting on demand say the rabbis, unless you are a victim of verbal mistreatment.

I first learnt this text in rabbinical school, it was 2016 and Donald Trump was running for president. LIAR, CHEAT, LAZY, CRAZY, DELUDED, SKANKY, insults were everywhere in bold type from the hand and mouth of a future world leader. I studied for an exam on the text in the aftermath of the murder of Jo Cox, and listened to her husband talk about the stream of messages calling her a traitor. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, as I watched the family of the late TV star Caroline Flack discuss her experience at the hands of internet trolls, and how they believe it led to her death. 

Like so many in the community I watched people I have known since Hebrew school cry on TV describing the way they had been spoken to at labour party meetings and online. It was on my mind last weekend listening to Ian Wright talk about the horrendous abuse he receives, as British footballers and sporting bodies embarked on a four day blackout of social media. And I couldn’t really believe that this was our portion this week, knowing as Rabbi Miriam spoke of last night, how it has been present in our community in the past few days. It’s a good thing only the gate for verbal mistreatment is open, because it seems to me that the queue to be heard there must be pretty long. 

The rabbis dedicate more than 20 sides of Talmud to discussing the issue of verbal mistreatment of others. Aside from public shaming and calling someone a derogatory name there is only one other thing that can cause someone to become stuck in gehenom forever. 

For the rabbis to be this elaborate about something, tells us that it was a problem. Why would they need to teach about it if it was not? To give it such a severe sanction, and to find Torah verses to ensure their argument is iron cast.

It most certainly is not just a Jewish problem, but the Jewish manifestation, as exemplified by the tragic story of Imma Shalom’s husband and brother is exaggerated because we share such a small space, because our community is so connected. The reason I think the story is especially relevant for us is that Rabbi Eliezer isn’t a typical victim, he’s pretty powerful, and he’s not especially likeable. He’s quite annoying, and in the legal matter he was arguing with the others about, he was also wrong, but none of those things get the others off the hook for their behaviour and for the way they treat him. The entire incident is told to teach the overriding principle of the seriousness of verbal mistreatment. 

The next week is mental health awareness week, and the image of Rabbi Eliezer’s tears turned to shooting flames is a helpful reminder of the enormous impact that words can have on someone’s wellbeing. We’re well versed as a society in talking about the impact of playground bullying, but as our texts teach us, grownup bullying is no less harmful. 

The two verses that repeat the commandment to not wrong one another in our portion are wrapped up within the wider laws of Bhar. They promise that if we get the relationships between people and between people and the land right, we will live on the land in security.

Being an active part of a community should support wellbeing, not jeopardize it. It is because we value what is possible, and the greater purpose of Jewish life that we need to get stuck into raising the tone, and refusing to accept the premise that there are some points that can only be made inside an insult. Conflict and disagreement can lead to real growth, the rabbis understood that better than anyone, they literally built their culture on it, but you can’t build by trampling on others.

It is taught Kol israel arevim zeh ba zeh- each of us is a surety for each other, and that text refers to an active kind of responsibility, a guarantor is someone who can be called upon to act.  it’s not something to watch unfold and tut about, if we don’t challenge verbal mistreatment we effectively condone it, that’s why it is Rabban Gamliel the head of the yeshiva who takes the blame for his rabbis actions. It means tapping someone on the shoulder when they say something hurtful, stepping in and standing by someone when we see them being treated badly. It means calling on those who are responsible for spaces, to take action when people violate those places. 

God has infinite time for those experiencing verbal mistreatment, and so should we because if we take community seriously, take people seriously, then that means taking the threats to personal and collective wellbeing seriously. Just as god makes it a priority, so in the work of building god’s kingdom we are called to make it a priority of ours too. 

Sun, 26 September 2021 20 Tishrei 5782