One good deed leads to another good deed, while one sin leads to another sin. (Mishnah Avot, 4:2)
The above rabbinic maxim has often been on my mind of late. It captures the idea that one good thing commonly leads to another good thing, while the opposite is also true – a destructive action frequently sets off a series of disturbing events.
We speak about gateway drugs, or the idea that hardened criminals often enter a downward spiral when they commit their first crime. In the same way, the telling of a single lie often begins an extended process of telling multiple lies. Conversely, a person who gets involved with charitable work will discover how good that work feels, and become more and more involved. A mitzvah leads to another mitzvah, a sin leads to another sin.
The same is true of the language we use. Destructive, hateful and hurtful language leads to more and more destructive language, and potentially to destructive and harmful action. It is no coincidence that the country experienced a series of violent actions as the midterm elections loomed, and the political rhetoric grew more and more heated. First, the series of pipe bombs that were discovered in the mail boxes of well-known figures on the left side of the political spectrum. Whether the bombs were functional or not, the point remains the same – hateful and hostile talk will lead to destructive action. Sin causes sin.
Then, the horrific and tragic events that unfolded in the Pittsburgh synagogue Tree of Life. The shooter, Robert Bowers, trolled the Internet posting and reading racial and anti-Semitic content.
But the truth is he didn’t have to go even that far. He could have simply turned on his television to watch coverage of the midterm election. With the use of divisive and hateful language at the very highest levels of the federal government, whether sent via tweet or spoken on the campaign trail, is it any wonder that there were people out there who decided to translate those words into actions? How can we be surprised? Once you cross the line with words, you don’t have to go much further to get to that place of violence. After all, you’ve already crossed the line.
Jonathan Merritt, an occasional writer for The Atlantic, recently published an op-ed in the New York Times about the gradual diminishment of what he called ‘God talk’ in our culture today. If you track the column down and read it, you’ll find that he is mostly writing about his God, the Christian God, but his point is well taken. Our language has become coarse, our discourse uncivil, and our ability to voice disagreement respectfully almost non-existent. Words like grace, kindness, sacrifice, patience, modesty, sacred and holy are all words that often come up in faith-oriented conversations. We need those words today as much as, if not more than, ever.
Judaism has long believed that what you say can make an impact on what you think and feel. The recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish is a prime example. This prayer, a litany of praises of God, is recited by those who have suffered the loss of a loved one. An odd choice, when you actually stop to think about it.
Or is it? Perhaps the idea is that the constant praising of God through the recitation of the prayer will over time enable a person to return to a place of faith, and to reclaim a sense of God’s greatness and presence.
I would argue it is the same for the language we use every day. Let’s talk more about modesty and kindness, about grace and justice, about sacrifice and patience, about how we experience the sacred in our lives. The old saying is a rising tide lifts all boats. One good deed leads to another. We can say the same about sacred words.
Rabbi Steven Schwartz is senior rabbi at Pikesville’s Beth El Congregation. He blogs at sceezo.wordpress.com.