The exceptionalism of the Jewish people is undeniable historical fact. The unique history and destiny of the Jewish people — that we are the “Chosen People” — is a major theme in the Torah and in Jewish life. That reality is not intended to be a source of hubris; it creates a responsibility. It indicates a special relationship with God and, therefore, is not a matter of privilege, but a special mission we must accomplish and a higher standard to which we must strive. And we will be taken to task if we fall short of that standard.
Pesach — and all the holidays, which are an extension of the Pesach experience — is the model of that responsibility, if not its very epicenter. This concept is reflected in special language of the holiday prayers. We open every holiday prayer with the words: “You have chosen us from all the other nations, You loved us and desired [a relationship with] us, and You have elevated [our language] from all the languages and sanctified us with your commandments.” The relationship is unique, loving, sanctified and demanding of a responsibility to a holy standard of living.
As indicated by the passage above, part of that standard is the way we speak. Certainly it is forbidden to slander anyone, bear tales, lie, verbally cheat and swindle, or to take God’s name in vain. These are all clearly stated in the Torah. But that is the minimum. The standard of having a language that is elevated from all others is a much broader responsibility and value. It demands that we use our words to elevate ourselves and others.
It demands that we use our words to help, to inspire, to encourage and to protect others. Not to hurt or demean or discourage others. Even though there are times we must use our words to point out the mistakes of others, or even to rebuke them, it must be in a constructive way and a positive way.
The standard of a language “elevated from all others” means that we should not engage in gutter language, obscenities or what some might refer to as simply “locker room” talk. It also means that we don’t simply talk without thinking. We have to measure not only the words we say, but also how and why we say them. Ours is lashon hakodesh, the holy language.
As we celebrate Pesach, let us embrace and be proud of our unique and noble history and destiny, and the miraculous totality of the Jewish experience. Let us rise to the challenge of the exceptionalism of the Jewish people and our special relationship with God by accepting the responsibility it places upon us with respect to how we think, how we view the world, how we act and how we speak. PJC
Rabbi Daniel Wasserman is the spirtiual leader of Shaare Torah Congregation and the president of the Gesher HaChaim Jewish Burial Society. This column is a service of the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh.