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Devarim: August 13th, 2016

Rabbi Randall Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom.

This is the Shabbat before the Great Fast of Tisha B’Av. The day we commemorate the destruction of the first and second Temples of Jerusalem. Over the centuries there have been many tragedies associated with the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av. This Shabbat, just before the fast, we are reminded of the many sad events that have plagued our people.

The explanation of the destruction of the Temple has never been about blaming others for our disasters. The Sages of Jewish history always looked inward to find the flaws in the Jewish People that led us to death and destruction. The Talmud is quite clear that the second Temple, destroyed by Rome in 70 CE, was destroyed because of “sinat hinam – causeless hatred”.  The Rabbis teach that the hatred of one man, whose name was Kamza, for another man, bar Kamza, spilled over at a party; bar Kamza got insulted and plotted to destroy his nemesis and the Rabbis who were present refused to step in to help him. The Rabbis themselves were aware that their own rigidity also was a factor that led Rome to decide that the Jews were rebelling and there was a need to send in the army.

Words matter. Children may chant that “words will never hurt me” but in fact words can hurt us and they often do. It was a war of words between Kamza and bar Kamza that led to the destruction of the Temple. We can laugh and taunt those who speak a language that is politically correct, but wars have been fought because one leader or another did not use proper diplomatic language. There are many who claim that Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait leading to the first Iraq war was due to a diplomat who was a novice and who did not understand that Iraq was asking if the United States would care if Kuwait was in trouble. It was a veiled threat that the diplomat missed and when she said that it was just a local issue, Iraq took that as permission to invade. Many people died in that war because words were misunderstood.

Almost every day now for nearly a month, it has become apparent that Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump does not clearly understand the importance of words. Almost every day he creates some new words to insult some group or another in this country and around the world. He has, through his words, insulted African Americans, Muslims, women, the disabled, and many other Republican candidates who don’t agree with his views. He has inflamed tension with our enemies and created new tensions with our allies. Mr. Trump tells us every day that we live in a dangerous world and every day his words seem to be making it even more dangerous.

And while Democratic Presidential candidate Hilary Clinton certainly understands the power of words, she too has been too cavalier with her words. Things that have been written by her and her staff, things that should never have been written let alone sent as an email, have come to light and have embarrassed her and her campaign. It is as if she understands the power of words but can’t seem to keep her words to herself.

As this war of words that we call a presidential campaign, gathers steam, there are two converging circumstances that mark serious trouble ahead.  This week there was a veiled threat of gun violence if the wrong person were to be elected and if she chose unacceptable judges for the Supreme Court.  All this transpired against a background where polling indicates that this candidate is making great inroads with uneducated white voters.  This is the exact combination of events that has led to murder and political chaos in all corners of the world.  It should be a matter of concern to us all.

I remind everyone of the assassination of Yitzchak Rabin and Rev. Martin Luther King, both gunned down by people who heard threats of violence against these important men and decided to make those threats real. Doctors have been killed because preachers have threatened violence against those who perform legal abortions. Law enforcement officers have been killed because angry Black leaders have threatened violence against them. As far back in history as King Henry the VIII of England, the king’s threat of violence killed Sir Thomas Becket even if he did not directly order the assassination.  We live in very violent times and there are many people who are just waiting for what they believe is permission to hunt down and kill those who they oppose.

And it would be convenient if I could say that those who kill under these circumstances are uneducated or undereducated, but that is just not the case. The incitement can lead even people with a decent education to fall into a mob mentality and follow through with assassination and murder. It is little wonder that those families who were victims of just this kind of violence spoke up quickly and forcefully about this kind of incitement. These words, once spoken, cannot be retrieved. The damage has now been done. There is no telling how far these words will go and how long they will echo before someone hears them and decides that he or she can make them real.

It is little wonder that the United States Secret Service had to have a talk with the candidate about this kind of speech. Such speech is completely banned in many countries including Israel. We live in a country where everyone is entitled to a first amendment right of free speech and a second amendment right to own a gun. It has long been the law in the United States that Free Speech does not give a person the right to yell “Fire” in a crowded theater since it will lead to a dangerous and life threatening situation. So too, insinuating that people who make decisions that  we don’t agree with might think to change those decisions through murder, is creating today an extremely dangerous situation.

When President Bush defeated Vice President Al Gore in a very close election. I noted then that the world looked on in awe as a hotly contested election was decided by judges and there was no rebellion by the supporters of the other side. The usual situation is for a civil war to break out if one side does not get the candidate they desire. It was the strength of our democracy that led to the uneventful transfer of power from one party to the other. It was, in spite of the difficult times, one of the most shining moments in the history of our country.

This week we may have begun a descent that will make us very much like any other third world countries who settle political scores with bullets and not ballots. This is not just a political problem for this country; this is a religious problem for Jews. We have often been the victims of words of hate and discrimination. We have also been murdered and pillaged because of such incitement. Our tradition teaches us the power of words and insists that we use our words carefully and deliberately. We must take note of those who use their words in a reckless manner, keeping them far from positions of power and we must use all our abilities to insure that leaders, who are deliberate in judgment and deliberate with their words, will be elected to positions of responsibility.

A very significant line was crossed this week. I am sure that if some act of violence occurs in the future, there will be protests of innocence that those who preached violence never directed anyone directly to harm anyone else. But once reckless words are spoken, the destruction has already been let loose.

I don’t know where all this will lead in this insane election season. I only know that senseless hatred lead to reckless words that led to the most catastrophic moment in Jewish History. As we commemorate that destruction tonight, I pray, I pray very hard, that History will not repeat itself.

May God deliver us from those who speak and promote violence and may our words bring peace to our crazy world.  As we say…. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B'nai Israel on August 13, 2016.

Mon, July 6 2020 14 Tammuz 5780