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The Power of the Spoken Word – erev Rosh Hashanah

September 28, 2011

The advertising campaign of one of the largest telecommunication companies in the world is based upon the question, “Can you hear me now?” It addresses our concern that in an age of instant communication, we might be out of touch. In 1982, the poster that announced the arrival of a movie directed Steven Spielberg – a poster that would become iconic in the industry – showed the fingertip of an extra terrestrial {‘E.T.’} touching the fingertip of a 12-year-old boy. The theme that weaves its way through the question “Can you hear me now?” and the delicate, iconic touch, is the drive to connect. Tonight, I am going to talk about the power of the spoken word, the sanctity of dialogue, and making the time to listen.

We are ‘the People of the Book.’ When you trace our Jewish DNA, it starts with B’reysheet / Genesis through D’varim / Deuteronomy, and continues from Torah to Talmud, Midrash to mysticism, and the prophets to Pirkei Avote. In the margins of texts there is commentary: words of scholars that amplify what is written. Sometimes the commentary is about a single word or phrase, and sometimes it asks why a certain word appears instead of another. The commentary almost always poses this question: “What does it mean?” In Hebrew, the first book of the Torah is called B’raysheet – “In the beginning” – and in their commentaries about the first chapter in the Book of Genesis, the ancient rabbis wanted to know what motivated God to begin the process of creation. The fifth book of the Torah is called Devarim – “words,” because it contains Moses’ review of our history and his final oration to our people. We are a people of words.

Long ago, words were chiseled on victory steles: ancient stone slabs that commemorated significant events in a nation’s history or a ruler’s reign. A proclamation commissioned by Pharaoh was etched on stone to celebrate the defeat of a slave rebellion at the time of the exodus from Egypt – around 1300BCE – and it gives credence to the belief that our mass flight out of Egypt did in fact occur. Why else would Pharaoh mention slaves in such a memorable manner? It is impossible to believe that he would have acknowledged defeat, and so it was done for the sake of public consumption to celebrate a phantom victory.

Words were laboriously written on parchment as well, and saved for posterity. Scrolls give credence to the intellectual, literary, scientific and cultural achievements of ancient civilizations. Nations that have been relegated to the dustbins of history continue to live through words written long ago that attest to their once-upon-a-time presence on this planet. Yet ours is the miracle of survival as a People and as a faith. Scrolls written on parchment provide information about our history, and they also affirm our rich literary tradition. Ours is an evolving tradition. We exist as a People while other civilizations are historic footnotes.

We live…and we live in a much different time, to say the least. The invention of the printing press by Gutenberg led to the mass production of books. It was an event as remarkable and revolutionary in its time as are the computer and Internet in ours. We are well aware of the benefits and burdens of e-mail, instant messaging, Facebook, texting and Twitter. The statement found in the Talmud – “As long as the words are in your mouth, you are their master; [but] once they leave your mouth, they become your master” – can be applied to our fingers. Text messages and photos sent through cyberspace may carry the presumption of privacy, but the ever-present “forward” button can easily ruin reputations.

For all the advantages that I.M.’ing and texting offer, there is a significant downside, and it is the lack of voice-to-voice connection. Why engage in-person or on the telephone if an e-mail or text sent from across the hall or down the road will suffice? Admittedly, e-mails, texting and Twitter make things easier, but we have lost a lot in the process. Civility suffers in the face of rapid-fire, unedited, stream-of-consciousness words. Words on paper lack inflection. Sometimes a humorous comment is taken for an insult. The use of multiple single letters have become shorthand substitutes for words – BRB {“Be right back”}; DGT {“Don’t go there”}; EOD {“End of discussion”}; LOL {“Lots of laughs”}; NOYB {“None of your business”}; PAW {“Parents are watching”}; one of my favorites, RYB {“Read your Bible”}; and AYDY {“Are you done yet?” which could be said about rabbis’ sermons!}- has led to a ‘dumbing down’ of vocabulary. The elegance of the written word has become victim to the secular deity known as ‘speed.’

One of the most frustrating things to annually occur at this time of year is the arrival of what I call ‘easy words’ in my e-mail box sent by people I barely know – sent as part of an e-mail blast to forty or fifty other people – asking for forgiveness for an unintended slight done in an unspecified place. The appeal comes complete with an abject apology in the name of a relationship that I was not aware existed

Among my most treasured possessions are this {hold up the microcassette} and this {hold up the bound transcript}. Twenty-three years ago, I asked my parents to once again tell me their life stories. We sat down over a two day period, and I recorded their voices and recollections. As powerful as were their words, so too were the spaces between their words: pauses when their voices caught as memories threatened to overwhelm them, and moments when they stopped mid-sentence as their eyes seemed to scan a distant horizon to capture an image, or the outlines of a scene dimly recalled. Their stories are in this folder, and their voices are on this microcassette and others. My father died in 1990 and my mother in 2002, so to hear their voices from the past is invaluable to me.

Every one of us remembers saying to our parents, “Tell me a story, Daddy!” or “Read me a story, Mommy!” We remember snuggling under the covers as our mother or father gave stories greater meaning through the inflection of their voices. We remember sitting on their laps as they made stories come alive by giving us the sensation of riding on a horse, or being in a car as it leaned into a curve. Many years ago on the West Coast, I accompanied my synagogue’s youth group to a nursing home where the kids played board games with the vatikim – a Hebrew word that means “esteemed elders,” a phrase much nicer than “senior citizens” – and we sat in several small groups singing songs and getting better acquainted. What made that visit memorable was a woman whose arrival was heralded by the steady tapping sound of her cane as she made her way toward us. She stood outside one circle of six members of our youth group, quietly observing them for several minutes, and then said, “Talk to me, I’m a book.” We are all books that consist of different stories, and some books have more chapters than others, and since we are ‘The People of the Book’ – a people with a great reverence for words – there is much that we can learn from each other.

This is true for everyone irrespective of race, religion, gender and age. In fact, this is why the ‘StoryCorps Project’ was launched on October 23, 2003 in New York’s Grand Central Terminal. Oral historian Studs Terkel, 91 years of age at the time, flew in from Chicago to proclaim, “Today we shall begin celebrating the lives of the uncelebrated! We’re in Grand Central Station. We knew there was an architect, but who hung the iron? Who were the brick masons? Who swept the floors? These are the non-celebrated people of our country. In this booth, the non-celebrated will speak of their lives.” The booth to which he refers is a recording booth in which are a table, two chairs placed across from each other, and a microphone in front of each chair. People make appointments at the StoryCorps Project booth and they arrive two at a time: a husband and wife; child and parent; grandchild and grandparent; co-workers, siblings and friends. For forty minutes one asks the other questions that have been considered in advance, often written down. A StoryCorps Project facilitator sits behind a pane of glass in front of an audio control board, presses ‘record’ and you begin. Two high-quality CDs are created: one is given to you, and the other becomes part of an archive at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. Excerpts of interviews are broadcast each Friday on NPR’s Morning Edition.

You could replicate the experience at home, in your office, or anywhere you choose, but the odds are you won’t make the time to do so because it is our habit to say, “I’ll get around to it,” and most of us don’t. Several years ago I officiated at a funeral where the grandson’s eulogy in memory of his grandfather was a lamentation about all the questions he wanted to ask his grandfather that he never got around to doing: who helped him the most when he emigrated to this country; whether he faced anti-Semitism in the army; if he ever shot at someone in the war; where his grandfather and grandmother met; why they only had one child…and on and on. It was one of the saddest eulogies I have ever heard, and it wasn’t about the deceased!

Since the StoryCorps Project was launched in 2003, another permanent booth has been established at Ground Zero, and three mobile recording studios travel throughout the country year-round gathering stories. Reservations for the month that the StoryCorp Project is in town are sold out almost instantly. In a remarkable book called Listening Is An Act of Love – A Celebration of American Life {the StoryCorps Project. New York: Penguin Books, 2007}, StoryCorps presents 49 stories – interviews of 3-4 pages in length, with small photos of the participants at the conclusion of each interview – in which a child given up for adoption interviews his birth mother in New York City, and a grown son speaks proudly about his father who spent his life making steel in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. There are interviews about experiencing the Great Depression; fighting in the front lines during World War II; marching on behalf of civil rights; surviving the 9/11 ‘attack on America’ as well as Hurricane Katrina; and helping a friend with AIDS die as peacefully as possible.

These stories help us see what we often do not see. They sensitize us to what is going on in other peoples’ lives and, from time to time when you read the interviews, something touches you in very profound ways. Here’s an example. The interview is about a time when a hospital chaplain worked in a large trauma center at a hospital in Chicago, and what follows are just two paragraphs of her three-page recollection: “[I was] in the area of the hospital where they packed the surgical instruments they need, and at the top of the list is the patient’s name and then this whole list of instruments. And these technicians work in the basement of the hospital in a huge, cavernous, windowless room with lots of instruments. They’re given this list, and it’s up to her or to him to pack these instruments in a package and seal them with tape to take up to the O.R. for the particular surgery…[These technicians were] people who to most of the hospital were basically anonymous. One of the women told me that as she packed these instruments and she knew the patient’s name [because she had seen it at the top of the list], she would pray for that patient. She thought she had been doing that for forty years. I thought, ‘No one knows that she’s doing this. Nobody knows.’ Here she is, a person who has been working at that hospital for longer than most of us, who is doing this incredibly important job that has to be done precisely and carefully, and is fairly complicated. And as she’s doing this, she’s praying for the patients she will never meet and the patients she will never see. She’ll never know the outcome. She only knows that she’s helping to make their surgery possible. Then I found out that most of them did it.” {The StoryCorps Project. Listening Is An Act of Love – A Celebration of American Life. New York: Penguin Books, 2007, pages 98-99}

What might you still be able to learn about someone you love before time runs out? Tomorrow morning, and on Yom Kippur, we will read the prayer called U’netaneh Tokef. Its refrain “Who shall live and who shall die” introduces a series of couplets that describe ‘life and death issues’ – “Who shall perish by fire and who by water…who by hunger and who by thirst…who by earthquake and who by plague” – as well as ‘quality of life’ issues: “Who shall be secure and who shall be driven…who shall be tranquil and who shall be troubled.” Who knows what this new year will bring? Who will be here at this time next year? What family stories do our children and grandchildren deserve to know? What do they need to know? Whose are the voices of historic memory? Whose lives do we treasure so much that we will record their voices for posterity as a gift to their descendants?

Text messages, instant messages, Facebook, and e-mails are ways to communicate, but the best way is in person, and the next best way is hearing each other’s voices even if we cannot be together. Words have a holy aspect to them: the care with which they are used, the civility with which they are transmitted, and the ways they are treasured.

In the Book of Psalms we read, Lihm’note yah’maynu kane hohdah v’nahvee l’vahv chochmah – “Teach us to number our days that we may acquire a heart filled with wisdom” {Psalm 90:12}. This year, because time marches on, I urge you to sit down with your loved ones – grandparents and parents in particular – to record their stories replete with nostalgia, humor and personal history, so that you, as I, can hear about your family in the voices of your avote v’imahote, your own ancestors, who helped shape who you are.

Presence matters, and so too the spoken word.

Rabbi Elliot J. Holin