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“Clean Language,” Rabbi Zecher’s Shabbat Awakenings

August 5, 2022 | 8 Av 5782

Welcome to Shabbat Awakenings as we move toward Shabbat. You can listen to it as a podcast here.

It’s time to talk about Lashon Naki. That’s Hebrew for “clean language.” It’s not where the phrase to “wash one’s mouth out with soap” comes from. And it is different from lashon hara, which means gossip. Lashon naki means a conscious effort to be aware of the decency of our words.

I don’t bring this up because of the political climate and (continual) election cycle we are in.  I use it because of the time of year we are in.

It is Tisha B’Av. This Saturday night at 6:00 p.m, we will host a gathering to commemorate the destruction of the Temple in ancient Jerusalem, first in 586 BCE by the Babylonians and then again in 70CE by the Romans. We will read from Lamentations, which receives its Hebrew name from the first word: Eicha. It translates as “Alas! An exclamation of despair. I would also say it can be translated as “how” since in Hebrew, aich, means how. “How lonely sits the city once great with people.” (Lamentations 1:1) In this way, the first word poses a question. How did the Temple fall to such devastation?

How it could have happened does not take the predictable route. History tells us that the Babylonians and later the Romans conquered and destroyed, ravaged and razed Jerusalem. It would be simple to blame the oppressing armies of these military forces. After all, they did carry the people off into exile. The prophets gave one explanation and then the rabbis who followed provided another.

The prophets warned the people at that time that they were in mortal peril because they were in moral danger created by their own behavior. In our day, we might think this is a “blame the victim” pathway, but long ago, they understood that we all contribute to the strength of our community by the way we act. They saw it as turning away from God. The prophet Isaiah, who lived in the 8th century, prescient in his vision of pending doom, reminded the people of a way back:

Wash yourselves clean;

Put your evil doings

Away from My sight.

Cease to do evil;

Learn to do good.

Devote yourselves to justice;

Aid the wronged.

Uphold the rights of the orphan;

Defend the cause of the widow (Isaiah 1: 16-17)

The ancient rabbis who would reflect back on why the Temple was destroyed gave another explanation. They called it Sinat Hinam, baseless hate. The lack of lashon naki, decent language, in the way people regarded and spoke about one another led to the destabilization of the very foundation of the Temple and its accompanying rituals. They could not withstand the outside force when their own community was weakened by baseless hate, sinat hinam.

I think we might agree that the combination of all three—outside military might, moral danger and baseless hate—contributed to their demise.

As we approach Shabbat, followed by Tisha b’Av, let’s reflect on the power of decent language, care for one another and justice embodied in our actions every day. That’s a force that may just save us all.

(first shared August 12, 2016)

Shabbat Shalom!

Please feel free to connect with me here. I would be honored to learn of your own reflections and response. I’m grateful to the many people who have already shared their thoughts with me in this way.

  • If you are in town, come celebrate Shabbat together and join us for Qabbalat Shabbat with plenty of singing, learning, praying, thinking, and some treats to eat and drink before and after services. If you’re unable to join onsite, please join on Zoom, on Facebook Live, or stream on our website.
  • Tot Rock Shabbat gathers online at 5:00 p.m.
  • A delightful Torah Study begins at 9:00 a.m. We begin with a short service and Torah reading and then jump into a provocative discussion. To join the conversation interactively, access Zoom. You can also watch on Temple Israel’s website or Facebook page.
  • TGIS will gather at Temple Israel at 10:00 a.m. No registration necessary.
  • Outdoors with TI will hold their Summer Arboretum Walk at 2:00 p.m. Register here.
  • We will gather for the Tisha B’Av community service in the Temple Israel garden at 7:30 p.m. for light refreshments. At 8:00 Rabbi Andrew Oberstein and Cantor Alicia Stillman will lead our candle-lit service with soft singing, discussion, and the chanting of the Book of Lamentations, the anguished recounting by Jeremiah of watching his beloved city burn. Join online via Zoom.

Rabbi Elaine Zecher