I have a question for you: What words do you keep in front of you?
I was asked this question by a rabbinic mentor of mine during my last year in seminary. I thought it was an odd question. So I replied that I wasn’t sure what he was asking, and asked if he could clarify what he meant.
He asked me to follow him into the sanctuary and had me look above the ark and asked me to read what was in front of the ark. Of course, it was the relatively common phrase “know before whom you stand.”
My mentor then shared with me that the phrase above the ark doesn’t work if it remains only above the ark. He encouraged me to carry the phrase with me to put in front of me while I worked, to place on the reader’s desk on the bimah, and during board meetings.
Why do I bring up this lesson in connection with Matot-Masei? I share this teaching in my mentor’s name, Rabbi Jonathan Stein, because I believe it lies at the heart of the beginning of our double portion.
Our parsha this week opens with the command “all that shall leave your mouth … you shall do.” Ask yourself this question: What would your world be like if you carried this phrase with you all the time?
How often do we make statements, both in verbal and digital form, that should count as though it “left our mouths” and then not fulfill or deny what we say? How often, in this world of deep fakes and “fake news,” claims of falsehoods and denials, and a reluctance to take responsibility, would people finally be held accountable? Imagine, just for a second, what that world would look like and what it would be like to live in such a world.
We have a world that is far more interconnected than our forefathers could ever imagine, and our responsibility lies not only within our homes, our communities, but with the broader world of all humankind.
Go past the beginning of our parsha, and we find that we are commanded to have “one law for all, Jew and non-Jew alike.” Should we not strive to model for our world, a world in which we fulfill the command to care for Jew and non-Jew alike, where we find fewer words, but more actions and responsibility, for we are careful and not so casual in our statements?
At the conclusion of Shabbat next week, we will be turning to observe Tisha B’Av. As our Sages taught us so long ago, we can in some ways attribute the destruction of the Temple to our words, and our lack of action and care for one another. I believe that my mentor’s teaching, that the words of our Torah can enable us to merit a day that we will inherit fewer words, but a healthier, kinder and more caring world. pjc
Rabbi Jeremy Weisblatt is rabbi at Temple Ohav Shalom. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.