The Next Challenge: Read The Torah With Me!

challengeWe celebrated Simchat Torah on Wednesday evening.  The Torah was unwrapped, filling our sanctuary and creating an incredibly holy circle of space.  After finishing the Book of Deuteronomy and starting the Book of Genesis, we rolled the Torah to the beginning, placed it in the ark and redressed all of our scrolls in their regular, yearly Torah covers.  The holidays that mark a new Jewish year have come to a close.  Jewish life calms down a bit as we work our way into 5774.  But, it does not stop!!!

On Yom Kippur, I urged us all to celebrate the 50th anniversary of our Holocaust Torah’s “second chance” by connecting deeply with the ancient stories contained on her parchment (my sermon can be found here: http://goo.gl/vk6x34).  In light of the success of the Elul Challenge which got many of us watching our words before the High Holidays, I am now issuing the “Torah Challenge”.  Between now and Shavuot in early June (Shavuot is the holiday that marks the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai), I want as many of us as possible to read the entire Torah (Five Books of Moses) in English.  To help us accomplish this, I will be offering “The Rabbi’s Book Club” – a Torah Study class that will meet the second Tuesday of every month (beginning October 8) at 7:00PM.  The Book Club is specifically designed for those who have never read or studied Torah before.  I know you are up to this challenge.  Given that everyone has difficult schedules, each Book Club will be recorded and available to members who miss a class.

If you are willing to take the Torah Challenge and join us at the Book Club, I ask that you read the first half of the Book of Genesis – up to and including Genesis 28:9.  You can purchase an English copy of the Torah here: http://goo.gl/CT0Inb.  You can also download the first six sections (Parashat Bereshit being the first) of Genesis here: http://www.hebcal.com/sedrot/.  If you have any questions please let me know.

I look forward to learning with many of you!  And remember, this Shabbat we start reading Genesis from the beginning, so join us at services where we will be reading and discussing Torah on a regular basis.

Thank You My Ramat Shalom Family And Friends

The beautiful and joyous holiday of Sukkot is upon us.  As we spend some time in the sukkah, we usually focus on the spiritual aspect of the holiday which encourages us to appreciate the beauty of the world that surrounds us.  In ancient times, Sukkot had a much more practical meaning.  It was an agricultural holiday.  The Torah refers to Sukkot as Chag Ha’Asif, the Festival of Ingathering.  It was a holiday marking the harvest in the land of Israel where the produce of the land was gathered and celebrated by the community.

As we celebrate Sukkot at Ramat Shalom, I can say that this year it is truly a modern Chag Ha’Asif, a modern Festival of Ingathering.  As I was building one of our sukkahs at the synagogue, I received a letter from Jewish Family Service, thanking us for the incredible amount of food we gathered and donated to their pantry on Yom Kippur.  Our donations completely filled the pantry, overwhelming the staff at JFS.  I have also received a report from Leslie Goldman, our Executive Director, informing me that the response to this year’s Yom Kippur Appeal has been tremendous.  So many of you have shared a generous financial gift with the synagogue, enabling us to fill the Ramat Shalom “Sukkah” with incredible blessings and making it possible for us to bring more folks into our “Sukkah” to become a part of the Ramat Shalom family.  On this Chag Ha’Asif, I thank you for allowing Ramat Shalom to truly celebrate an incredible harvest of giving.  Your generosity has made a tremendous difference here at home and in the larger community.  We are an incredible congregation.

Chag Sameach!  Happy Sukkot!

Online Class A Success!

online learning or education concepts

 

Thank you to all my wonderful online students who joined me in the Online Classroom for the past four weeks as we studied “The Holidays That Mark A New Jewish Year”.  Learning with you has been wonderful.

The Online Classroom will be back in session in November for a three part series on Chanukah.  Hope you will join us.  You can find more information about this series here.

By the way – it is not to late to take part in “The Holidays That Mark A New Jewish Year”.  The classes have been recorded and are available now in the Online Classroom.  You can still share questions and comments on the blog.

 

Yom Kippur 5774 Sermon: Scroll Number 32, Our Heart, Love Her

The ark that held our scroll in Kolin, Czechoslovakia.  Built in the late 1600's with funds donated by the Oppenheimer family.

The ark that held our scroll in Kolin, Czechoslovakia. The ark was built in the late 1600’s with funds donated by Samuel Oppenheimer.

Hear the sermon HERE

Podcast Summary:

Ramat Shalom Synagogue’s “Holocaust Torah” was rescued by Westminster Synagogue in 5724, 50 year ago. When it was rescued along with 1,563 other Czech scrolls, it was given a number – the number 32. This Yom Kippur (5774), Rabbi Andrew Jacobs spoke about the Torah’s journey from Kolin, Czechoslovakia to Plantation Florida – a 300 plus year journey. The journey is filled with ups and downs, incredible heroes and an amazing chance at a second life at Ramat Shalom. Rabbi Jacobs explains how the number 32 corresponds to the Hebrew word “lev” or heart. He teaches how Scroll #32 is the heart of Ramat Shalom. He challenges his community to honor this precious scroll by giving her the community she so deserves – a community that loves her, embraces her and learns from her. Cantor Debbie Hafetz and her husband, Harold Price, composed a song in honor of Scroll #32 which is based upon the poetry of a Camill Hoffman, who was born in Kolin and was murdered in Auschwitz. The song will be posted soon.

Remember 9/11

On this 12th anniversary of 9/11, please pause to remember all those we lost.

“Everyone has a name”
Poem by Zelda
[translated from Hebrew]

Everyone has a name
given to him by God
and given to him by his parents.
Everyone has a name
given to him by his stature
and the way he smiles.
and given to him by his clothing
Everyone has a name
given to him by the mountains
and given to him by the walls.
Everyone has a name
given to him by the stars
and given to him by his neighbors.
Everyone has a name
given to him by his sins
and given to him by his longing.
Everyone has a name
given to him by his enemies
and given to him by his love.
Everyone has a name
given to him by his holidays
and given to him by his work.
Everyone has a name
given to him by the seasons
and given to him by his blindness.
Everyone has a name
given to him by the sea and
given to him
by his death.

The 9/11 Memorial Site

Erev Rosh HaShanah Stories: The Evil Tongue/L’Shon Ha’Rah

Teshuvah Story 1: The Tongue

As we have prepared for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, examining our lives and looking at ways we need to grow and change in the year to come, many of us have been engaged in the Elul Challenge this past month.  We have worked hard to watch our words and avoid l’shon harah – the evil tongue, or gossip.  As we have watched our words, it has become so apparent how powerful our tongue can be – and the destruction it can do.  The words that leave our mouths – even when we are not gossiping – they can sting. For centuries, the rabbis have been obsessed with the power of our words.  For centuries, the rabbis have urged us to watch our words.  And still, for centuries, Jews have come to High Holidays services realizing that they have used words carelessly and caused hurt.  Tonight, we will hear a few stories that implore us to find the strength to raise our speech to a holier level in the year to come.  Perhaps, one of these stories will stick – and will be the trick to keep us from losing control of our tongue and engaging in l’shon harah.

Our first story tells the tale of the great Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi who lived during the 2nd century.  Like many rabbis who would follow him, Rabbi Yehudah wanted to teach his students to be very careful how they spoke to one another.  What did he do?  He did not teach a lesson on l’shon harah or direct his students to the Torah.  No.  He called his cooks and told them to prepare a big meal for everyone, at which the main dish would be tongue. 

Now the tongue of a cow is very tough. When the cow is alive, she uses her tongue to eat all kinds of sharp, pointy grasses, full of thorns and thistles.  To cook tongue properly, you first have to soak it a long time, and then cook it for many hours until it gets soft.   Rabbi Yehudah had his cooks make some of the tongue properly, soft and tender. The rest he left half-cooked. It was very tough and hard.  Which pieces would you have wanted – the soft ones or the tough hard ones? Of course, when Rabbi Yehuda’s students sat down to eat, they all wanted the soft tasty pieces of meat.

“Learn your lesson carefully,” said Rabbi Yehudah to them. “Nobody here wanted the tough, hard tongue. Everybody wanted the soft tender pieces. It’s just the same when you speak to others. Remember, a soft tongue is the best. Always use gentle words and kind speech. And if someone is upset with you, do not answer in angry tones. Remember that a gentle answer turns away anger.”

 

Teshuvah Story 2: The Chickens

Rabbi Yonatan, who lived in the 1700’s, was well respected by the king of Prague, and often advised him on matters of state. Jealous of Rabbi Yonatan’s wisdom, members of the king’s court began speaking ill of him to the king. Initially the king refused to believe them and the gossip that flew from their mouths, but as time went on, the slander grew and grew until the king was forced to deal with it. If the rumors were true, Rabbi Yonatan was a wicked man.  If the rumors were false, well the gossipmongers should be punished.  But, there was so much gossip that the king was confused.  What was the truth?  An ardent fan of chicken fights, the king demanded a contest to resolve the matter once and for all and determine if the rumors were true.  Everyone had to participate.

Each contestant – Rabbi Yonatan and the members of the court who were gossiping about him – had to train a chicken to be quick and vicious if they wanted to win the fight. The person whose chicken won the fight would prove his wisdom and talent, and would become the hero of the king’s court and help to determine the truth about Rabbi Yonatan. Now, Rabbi Yonatan had no interest in participating and had no idea how to make anything in this world vicious, certainly not a chicken. Nevertheless, he had to participate.

The day of the fight arrived. Each contestant brought a chicken that was groomed and trained for the occasion. Rabbi Yonatan brought a chicken too, except that his chicken was thin, weak and not at all aggressive. The contestants took their places and set down their chickens. The fight began.  Immediately, the quick and vicious chickens began to attack each other. Rabbi Yonatan’s chicken, however, untrained in such matters, quietly made its way around the brawling birds while the other chickens were busy tearing one another apart. In time, Rabbi Yonatan’s chicken emerged as the last chicken standing – the only chicken unharmed. Rabbi Yonatan’s reputation was never questioned again.  And the members of the king’s court began to watch their words and avoided, to the best of their abilities, acting like aggressive chickens.

 

Teshuvah Story 3: The Baal Shem Tov’s Students

One day, the 18th century Hasidic rabbi known as the Baal Shem Tov felt it was necessary to teach his students about the power of their tongues and the words that flew from their mouths.  He did not cook them tongue.  Instead, he instructed his students to go on a journey. He did not tell them why they were journeying or to where they would travel.  He simply told them to go.  The students did not ask any questions; they allowed divine providence to direct their wagon where it may, confident that the destination and purpose of their trip would be revealed in due time.

After traveling for several hours, the students stopped at a wayside inn to eat and rest. Now the Baal Shem Tov’s students were pious Jews who believed that they followed all of the laws of Judaism.  They insisted on the highest standards of kosher law; when they learned that their host at the inn planned to serve them meat in their meal, they asked to meet with the kosher butcher of the house.  They interrogated him as to his knowledge and piety and examined his knife for any possible blemishes. Their discussion of the kosher status of the food continued throughout the meal, as they inquired after the source of every ingredient in each dish set before them.  Criticism, questions, accusations, suspicions flew around the table.  There was no expression of gratitude for the food or for those who prepared it. 

As the students spoke and ate, a voice emerged from behind the oven, where an old beggar was resting amidst his bundles. “Dear Jews,” it called out, “are you as careful with what comes out of your mouth as you are with what enters into it?”

The students, shocked, concluded their meal in silence, climbed onto their wagon and turned it back toward home – to see the Baal Shem Tov. They now understood the purpose for which their teacher had dispatched them on their journey that morning.  They rode home in silence – fearful that their tongues might lead them astray once again.

 

Teshuvah Story 4: The Old Woman and Her Laundry

This tale is about a pious woman who lived in the Old City of Jerusalem about one hundred or so years ago.  But the lesson she teaches us is timeless.

For those living in the Old City a century ago, washing clothes for a family was a chore of almost unimaginable difficulty. Water was not easy to come by and it was hot under the sun.  After six hours of backbreaking labor, the pious woman hung her laundry out to dry on two clotheslines that were stretched between poles and went the whole length of the courtyard she shared with her neighbors.

That afternoon, one of the women neighbors came into the common courtyard on her way home. For some reason, she saw the two clotheslines with all the laundry hanging from them as hindering her as she walked to her house, as if there was not room enough for her to pass by unobstructed.

Instead of being understanding and stooping for a moment to get through, and keeping her good relations with her neighbor, her yetzer—her evil inclination—incited her, and she burst into a fit of anger and revenge. She ran into her house, grabbed a pair of scissors, rushed back out into the courtyard, and cut the two cords. The laundry, which was now clean and bright after all the first woman’s work, fell with a thud into the dirt of the unpaved courtyard.

The pious woman – the one whose laundry it was – heard the sound, rushed out to see what had happened, and was stunned. At that moment, she stood before a test. According to ordinary human nature, she should have started screaming and cursing at her neighbor and her ugly deed. The pious woman’s evil inclination was about to explode like a raging fire. But in a sudden blessed moment, she drew strength from the wellspring of her pure faith. After a few moments of shaking, she overcame this painful test, bit her lip, and justified heaven’s judgment, saying to herself, “Okay, I must need this challenge. May it be an atonement for me!’

She quietly picked up the fallen laundry, washed off the dirt, tied the cut clotheslines back together, and took the laundry to a large public courtyard some distance away, where she once again hung it up. In the evening, she brought the dry laundry home.  She was in a good mood; but the incident was not yet finished.

When her husband came home after praying the evening service, she did not tell him what had happened to her in the courtyard! This second test—not to slander or gossip about the woman who tore down her laundry—was perhaps even greater than the first, because the Rabbis teach, “If you are troubled, talk it out to someone.” How much greater still was her test as she could certainly expect similar incidents in the future from this bad neighbor.  Who could have blamed her for telling her husband? But, still, she controlled herself and said nothing to him.

No one would ever have known of this whole matter had not the woman who had acted out of control come to her neighbor’s house that night, ashamed of her mean behavior, and asked forgiveness for the ugly incident.

The pious woman forgave her wholeheartedly, and during their ensuing conversation, it came out that she had redone the laundry elsewhere and had not even mentioned the incident to her husband. The other woman was surprised to hear this; moved by her neighbor’s patience, she exclaimed, “May God help me learn to control myself—as you did—in my moments of testing!”

 Few have found the strength needed to act like the pious woman.  Many, however, have behaved in ways similar to the destructive neighbor.  It took much more strength for the pious woman to hold her tongue than it did for the neighbor to let loose and tear down the laundry.  Fortunately, through this story, we are visited by the strong, pious woman who encourages us this Erev Rosh HaShanah to discover similar strength inside of us and learn how to control ourselves in our moments of testing in the year to come

 

 

Rosh HaShanah Day 1 Sermon: Paula Deen and L’Shon Ha’Rah

For the past month, members of our community, myself included, have taken the Elul Challenge.  We have worked very hard not to engage in what we call l’shon harah.  L’Shon ha’rah literally means “the evil tongue” and engaging in l’shon ha’rah means engaging in any speech and sharing any words that cause harm.  In addition to gossip and slander, l’shon ha’rah also includes sharing any information about someone, even factual and kind comments, when they are not present. 

Tomorrow morning, I encourage you to join us at services, as members of our community who have taken the Elul Challenge share their experiences with us – what worked, what didn’t work and what they gained from the Challenge.  Today, I want to share some of what I have gained from the Challenge.  I certainly struggled to keep my mouth closed and resist the urge to talk about others.  Sometimes I was successful and other times, well, I lost the Challenge – and I admit, not just because I was saying nice things about other people.  But, resisting the urge to talk about others was not the hardest part of the Challenge for me.  As someone who spends virtually every morning reading various newspapers online and listening to the news throughout the day – I struggled more with another l’shon ha’rah prohibition: the fact that we are forbidden to listen to l’shon ha’rah.  When we listen to spoken or written words that refer to another person and their actions, we give the speaker or the writer an ear.  Oftentimes, when we hear or read information, not knowing if it is accurate, we spread it.  Or, we internalize it and pass judgment on the person being spoken or written about – even if we are not aware of it.  When we do so, we add to the often damaging effects of the original words that we heard or read and become guilty of l’shon ha’rah ourselves.

By engaging with the media, I am guilty of l’shon ha’rah.  The examples I could give you are endless.  There are countless people who I have judged based upon what I have read and heard – celebrities, politicians and people accused (but not convicted) of a crime.  And while my judgments of these people might have been valid – they were based, according to the laws of l’shon ha’rah, on gossip.  Remember, even if the gossip is true – Judaism defines it as l’shon ha’rah – evil speech. 

Most of the people whom I have read or heard about in the media, I did not know personally.  I did not witness their actions – the stuff that got them in the media spotlight in the first place.  But, the media has allowed me to feel that I know it all and am capable of making a decision about who and what they are.  I am certain that many of the judgments I have made have been off base and put the “rah” – the evil – in l’shon ha’rah.

And, this is why, the Chafetz Chayim, the famous Lithuanian rabbi who lived during the turn of the 20th century teaches us:

 

The satanic evil inclination has invented a new trick to cause our brethren to sin through foolishness and to cause Godly influence to leave the world.  And this is through the reading of newspapers that have become popular in our time.  They contain foolishness, evil talk, gossip, controversy and hearsay and were this not acceptable to their readers they would not be printed…and to many Jews this has become an essential item.  It is impossible for them to have one day without a newspaper and they spend a few hours reading it.

 

What would the Chafetz Chayim have said about Facebook and Twitter!

To all of the wonderful journalists in the sanctuary today – the Chafetz Chayim goes a bit too far.  And there are rabbis who make it clear how important reputable journalism is.  I, for one, value quality reporting that allows me to understand important issues affecting us locally, nationally and globally.  Media can be beneficial and help us expand our knowledge and play a role in making our community a better place.

This being said, we do live in a world that craves controversy, conflict and, above all else, juicy gossip.  And a lot of media is right there to feed our craving, 24 hours a day on the internet, on social media and on our smart phones.  We are addicted to l’shon ha’rah.  We pounce on it.  We listen to words, write words, speak words – words that are part of a culture that can easily destroy lives – one word at a time.  And when we do take part in the destruction of someone else’s life (whether we realize we are doing this or not) – we also destroy our own life, reducing ourselves to gossipmongers and talebearers.  Judaism looks with disdain upon those who engage in l’shon ha’rah because it undermines our potential to bring good things into this world, causes unnecessary angst and hurt and keeps us from engaging in healthy, spiritually rewarding conversations and engaging with media and reading articles and books that could actually expand our minds.  L’shon ha’rah has the ability to suck the spirituality right out of our lives – making our day to day routine all about the juicy details we learn and share about others rather than strengthening our mind and spirit and building deep, meaningful relationships with family and friends.

I want to talk this morning about some of the evil talk, controversy, and hearsay that I have read in the papers and social media and heard on the news – stuff that has influenced me.  When I do this, I will be engaging in l’shon ha’rah.  I will be talking about someone when they are not here.  And, to make matters worse, I will be encouraging you to engage in l’shon ha’rah because you will be listening to me talk about someone else and encouraged to talk about them.  And, on top of this, some of you might disagree with me, which might encourage you to talk about me.

However, given that the rabbis permit l’shon ha’rah if the intention of the speaker is to improve things for the individual being spoken about and to help the listeners gain important insight, I have decided to engage in l’shon harah this Rosh HaShanah morning.  My words are intended to be instructional – but, nonetheless, I admit, they are still l’shon harah.

Over the past several months, we have all watched and many of us – myself included – have taken part in – the demise of celebrity chef Paula Deen.  Her demise began when a former employee of restaurants owned by Deen and her brother filed a lawsuit alleging racial and sexual discrimination and antisemitism.  The former employee, who is white, claimed, among many things, that Ms. Deen used the “N” word to describe African Americans taking part in Ms. Deen’s brother’s weddings and oversaw a business that discriminated against black employees.

In a story reported in the infamous National Enquirer back in June, Ms. Deen stated in her deposition that she had used the “N-word” at times, saying “Yes, of course. But that’s just not a word that we use. I don’t – I don’t know.” As time has gone on things have changed since the 60’s in the south.” Ms. Deen said she used the term when telling her husband about an incident in 1986, “when a black man burst into the bank that I was working at and put a gun to my head. I didn’t feel real favorable towards him.”

Ms. Deen admitted she was sure that she had used the word since that incident but in a “non-mean way”. Ms. Deen said she probably used the word while repeating a conversation between black people. She said that her family, including her brother, does not discriminate against any race and objects to the N word “being used in any cruel or mean behavior”. Ms. Deen admitted to discussing wedding plans with the employee who was suing her, saying that she wanted it to have a “true Southern plantation-style theme” with black male servers but she did not follow through with the plans “because the media would be on me about that.”  She denied having used the “N-word” when discussing the wedding wait staff. And, in the employee’s deposition, she contradicts her allegations and asserts that Ms. Deen never made a racist remark.

Over the summer, additional information leaked out from the trial which called into question the former employees accusations, but no one paid much attention to this.  The media spotlight was on Deen – and newspaper, television and internet reports hammered her racist remarks into our heads and the public, well, we ate it all up.  It was too good to resist.  And so the media gave us more.  The more we “ate” the more outraged we became.  Relying solely upon the gossip we ingested, many of us were horrified by Ms. Deen and her admitting to the use of such vulgar language – even though it was not used at work – which is what the trial was all about.  Her corporate sponsors heard the outrage and responded.  The Food Network announced that it would not renew her contract when it expired at the end of June.  On June 24, Smithfield Foods dropped Deen as a spokeswoman. In addition, Walmart,Target, QVC, Caesars Entertainment, Home Depot, the diabetes drug company Novo Nordisk, J.C. Penney, Sears, and K-Mart terminated or suspended endorsement deals with her.

In a bit of a PR nightmare, Deen issued a few public apologies attempting to own her mistakes, save her business and condemn hateful speech.  Her new book, which has yet to be published, surged to the top spot on Amazon’s best-sellers list, but her publisher, Ballantine Books, decided to cancel the deal to publish the book. The Paula Deen Empire now lies in shambles. 

Let me say very clearly: using any type of racial or religious slur is wrong.  Period.  And I was bothered by what I heard about Ms. Deen.

However, this Rosh HaShanah, I see that what brought Paula Deen down was not simply racial slurs that she admitted to using in private years ago.  What also brought her down was l’shon ha’rah – information that was shared about her that was brought to light during a court proceeding – and our culture’s insatiable desire to ingest l’shon ha’rah and regurgitate it, sharing it with everyone we know.  In the case of Ms. Deen – and many other people in the spotlight recently – information was spread through the media, taken out of context, interpreted by everyone and their brother on Facebook, Twitter and blogs where the 21st century’s overnight “journalists” wait to attack.  Conclusions were reached – while a trial was taking place – and Paula Deen was convicted by the public before the trial concluded.  I stand before you as someone who convicted her.

Judaism places a high value on the judicial system.  Courts and judges have been a part of who we are as a people since biblical times.  Judaism places the utmost importance on the testimony of honest witnesses.  It is this testimony that ensures the smooth functioning of the judicial system and the pursuit of true justice.  Judaism teaches us that the testimony of one person is usually not enough to prove a point.  The Torah says “One witness shall not arise against a man for any sin or guilt that he may commit; according to two witnesses or according to three witnesses a matter shall stand.” Thus, Jewish law usually states that two witnesses are needed to provide conclusive proof of what really happened. These witnesses need to have been actual witnesses to the event at the heart of any trial. Hearsay is l’shon ha’ra.  Hearing about events of a trial through the media, not getting all the facts and personally deciding to convict a defendant before the judge and/or jury can make their decision is relying on hearsay.  This undermines the judicial process.  The Torah insists that we pursue justice with all of our strength.  Allowing the judicial process to take its course is imperative.  Convicting someone while a trial is going on runs counter to everything Jewish and, in this country where you are innocent until proven guilty, everything American.  When we convict someone based upon what we hear – we are engaging in l’shon ha’rah.  

I realized that I convicted Ms. Deen based upon what I heard.  So, as I began the Elul Challenge in early August, I decided to reflect upon my conviction of her.  A friend of mine encouraged me to compare Ms. Deen to some of the senior members of the Jewish community.  “Not to excuse Ms. Deen’s words,” my friend said, “but when we factor in her age and her Southern roots,” he said, “we must think about some of the members of our Jewish community of the same age group – and how they refer to different racial groups.”  Racial and religious slurs are not okay – but we must consider who is doing the speaking in order to understand the severity of the offense.  When your grandmother uses the infamous and insulting Yiddish slur for a black person that begins with an “s” – does that make your grandmother a terrible human being or someone who is a bit ignorant and needs to be schooled in proper speech and sensitivity?  Words that disgust us today, were, not that long ago, acceptable.  We owe it to those who grew up with these words to help them change their vocabulary – don’t we?

As the month of Elul began during the second week of August, I started reading more about Ms. Deen.  I realized that she incriminated herself.  She was honest.  She owned her own l’shon ha’rah – her own use of racial slurs many years ago.  She explained why the words were used.  She explained that they were used primarily with her husband, in private. Certainly, her explanation does not excuse her words, but she did admit to them and apologized.  On these High Holy Days, when we are encouraged to face our failings and seek forgiveness from those we have wronged, we can’t help but wonder if Ms. Deen would have been better off keeping her use of racial slurs in the past to herself.  But then, she would not have been honest.  And honesty is important, isn’t it?  And, we, as a culture, have forgiven other, much bigger celebrities for using racial and religious slurs – haven’t we? (To name names would be l’shon ha’rah…sorry)  Is Ms. Deen’s sin not worthy of our forgiveness?  If you own your mistake and apologize, at what point can you stop apologizing?  Judaism requires us to apologize three times.  If we are not forgiven after the third attempt, Judaism says we have done what is needed to atone.  Does this apply to people like Ms. Deen?  And why is that we can’t we embrace an apology from someone as quickly as we can embrace gossip about them?

On August 12, one week into the Elul Challenge, a federal judge dismissed the claims of racial discrimination that were brought against Deen.  The judge ruled that the plaintiff could not claim to be a victim of racial discrimination targeting African-American workers as she is white and just a “an accidental victim of the alleged racial discrimination.” Later, both sides agreed to dismiss the lawsuit “without any award of costs or fees to any party.” On August 23, as I continued to wrestle with the Elul Challenge, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia Southern Division tossed out the case altogether.  Ms. Deen, the woman I had already convicted was now no longer at risk of any legal conviction.  To top things off, the woman who charged Deen with racism and sexual harassment released a statement saying:

 

I assumed that all of my complaints about the workplace environment were getting to Paula Deen, but I learned during this matter that this was not the case. The Paula Deen I have known for more than 8 years, is a woman of compassion and kindness and will never tolerate discrimination or racism of any kind toward anyone.  I wish Ms. Deen and her family all the best in all of their future endeavors and I am very pleased that this matter has been now been resolved and can now be put behind us.

 

She might be able to put this incident behind her.  But, Paula Deen, someone whom her accuser now says would never tolerate discrimination or racism of any kind, has been convicted by the public and is seen as a horrible racist. 

As a result of all of the chatter that has surrounded this dismissed trial, Deen’s name, reputation and business have been destroyed.  The Chafetz Chayim teaches us that if someone does wrong and does not face a trial, it is okay to engage in l’shon ha’rah to correct the behavior of the offender and protect the rest of the community.  However, the damage done to the offender by the l’shon ha’rah cannot cause more damage to the offender than they would have faced if they had appeared before a judge.  Paula Deen appeared before a judge.  The case was dismissed.  The accuser said Ms. Deen is not a racist.  Deen was not issued any fines.  She was not punished by the court in any way.  She was not found guilty.  But, nonetheless, she was destroyed.

Reverend Jesse Jackson argued that Ms. Deen should be reclaimed rather than destroyed. And in July, his Rainbow Push organization – downplayed any racism and racial discrimination by Deen.  President Jimmy Carter, with whom I often disagree – mainly on Israel – has urged that Ms. Deen be forgiven, stating, “I think she has been punished, perhaps overly severely, for her honesty in admitting it and for the use of the word in the distant past. She has apologized profusely.”  I can now say I agree with President Carter – her punishment does not fit her crime and I am sorry I fell victim to the l’shon ha’rah frenzy.  But the damage of l’shon ha’rah has been done. 

There is a famous story about a man who spreads gossip about another member of his town.  He realizes he has been wrong and visits the rabbi to determine what he can do to repair the damage he has done.  The rabbi instructs him to take a feather pillow out into the wind, tear it open and return to him.  The man does as the rabbi instructs him.  The rabbi tells him to go back outside and collect the feathers – all of them.  The man says: “but that is impossible”.  “Correct,” said the rabbi – “and so is repairing the damage your words have caused.”

It will never truly be over for Ms. Deen.  There will forever be feathers from this ordeal floating around.  And Ms. Dean is just one of the victims of needless, senseless l’shon ha’rah.  I referred to the countless celebrities, politicians and people who are accused of crimes who are gossiped about without end.  And then, of course, there are the regular folks…the people who don’t lead public lives – just regular people like you and me.  We have all heard things about others much less famous than Ms. Deen – we have  heard things about people in this room and the greater South Florida community.  We have shared what we have heard.  We have scattered our own share of feathers that can never be collected.  And for what purpose?  Has it made our lives better?  And how about those of us who have been gossiped about?  Those of us less famous than Ms. Deen.  You are here today.  Maybe you really screwed up or maybe the gossip about you was just made up – no matter what – you know why the rabbis called it the EVIL tongue.  It hurts beyond words to be talked about.  And the damage it can do is tremendous.  It strips you of your dignity and takes the holiness out of life.  While Paula Deen’s demise deserves our attention, it is because of your painful experiences with l’shon ha’rah that I challenge us all to watch our words.

As we enter a new year and look at ways we can grow as individuals and as a community, let’s acknowledge that we need to hesitate before we speak.  Not talking about someone when the urge to do so is overwhelming is a difficult but great thing.  In the ancient Jewish text, Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Shimon teaches us: “Even though all my life I grew up among scholars, I discovered nothing more fitting for a person than silence.  For the learning is not the main thing but the action.  And whoever uses too many words brings on sin.”  Choosing silence instead of gossip is a spiritual choice – a hard choice in such a noisy society.   Tuning out the noise, chatter and gossip and sitting with family and friends, a good book or just a quiet head is a spiritual choice.  Choices we are capable of making, choices that will benefit you and the world.

Here is to a new year where l’shon ha’rah – the evil tongue is replaced by the lev kadosh – holy heart.  Shanah Tovah