An anniversary is a commemoration that occurs annually. Today, I am celebrating a Bar Mitzversary: an event that occurs only once every 13 years. This Shabbat is the third Bar Mitzversary of my original Bar Mitzvah in 1977. In other words, 39 years later.
Thirty nine years ago, like today, I gave a d’var torah, and read the maftir and haftorah. But back then, my d’var torah was written by my father. He was grateful to see the last of four children reach the milestone, and the speech thus referred to me as the caboose of the family.
I now have my own family, and have proudly seen them grow up. As they did so, teaching opportunities arose. This week’s parasha brings one of those opportunities to mind.
A number of years ago, I was walking through a store, and saw a copy of Ferris Buehler’s Day Off on sale. This was one of my favorite movies, and I thought to share it with my sons. It was rated PG-13. But I did not remember any sex or violence in the movie. So I brought it home, and that evening sat down with the boys who snuggled up to me. Isaac was three or so at the time, and Asher was eight. I told them that the movie was part of my youth, and I hoped that they would like it as well. I turned on the movie, and quickly realized how it got its rating. Not sex or violence, but language.
The cursing was just part of the patois. To an adult, we learn to ignore it. But sitting with my young children, I felt like I was being hit, over and over again. Perhaps I should have turned it off. But I had built up its quality, and couldn’t just change my mind. We watched the movie, and at the end I thought I had learned my lesson: trust the ratings.
Now you should know that Isaac was a talkative child. The next morning, as I was driving Isaac to child care at the JCC, he was chatting away as always, but this time he was cursing like a comedian on late-night cable. When we arrived at the JCC, I bent over him in the backseat, and started unbuckling him from the five-point harness of his car seat. I said, “Isaac, are you using those words because you heard them in the movie last night?” He nodded his head. I asked, “have you ever heard your Momma or Abba use those words?” He shook his head. I then added, “then I do not want to hear them from you,” and gave him a kiss. I didn’t hear them again.
The concept of proper language arises in today’s parasha. After the episode of the people complaining about not having meat, Miriam and Aaron speak against Moses. According to the parasha, “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married: [saying] ‘He married a Cushite woman.’” The term Cushite is used twice, indicating its importance.
From this bemah, we have heard many first-time Bar and Bat Mitzvahs draw on this phrase to discuss lashon hara: speaking ill of another, or gossip. But I think there is something more in it.
So, I’m a lawyer; and I think seriously about rhetoric and argumentation. What kind of complaint is this? That he married a Cushite woman? How is that relevant, at all, to Moses’ ability to teach Torah? Similarly, is the name calling that we hear in today’s political discourse relevant? Must policy differences be transformed into personal epithets? Both Greek and Jewish thinkers have considered what constitutes proper discourse. Aristotle developed a taxonomy for describing forms of persuasion: He said that there are three modes of persuasion: ethos, pathos, and logos.
Ethos is the audience’s perception of the speaker’s credibility or authority. Does the speaker know what they are talking about? Is the speaker believable?
Pathos is an appeal to audience’s emotion. Does it feel right to the listener?
And Logos is an appeal based on information. Is the claim accurate? Does it make logical sense.
But there are also logical fallacies: things that appear to be arguments but really are not. I’ll give some examples:
The non-sequitor: a citation to evidence that does not logically support the claim. For example, if we ban Muslims from entering the United States, then native born Americans will not commit terror.
Then there is the either/or argument: Either you’re for America, or against it; either you’re for Israel or against it. The fallacy is that is that it falsely presumes only two choices.
And the ad hominem argument: an attack on a person’s character rather than views. I think we can all conjure recent examples from the news.
In comparison, Jewish rhetoric does not focus on the art of persuasion, but instead views speech as a tool within a social construct. Jewish rhetoric aims at ethical community living and social harmony. Speech itself is power.
Jews recognize that language can create and destroy. In Genesis, G-d creates the world by speaking. He says “let there be light,” and there was light. The Hebrew word “davar” means “word,” but it also means “thing” or “deed.” We are currently in the book of B’midbar, meaning in the wilderness. But the root of the word is also from “davar.” The wilderness is a place where there have not been words.
Thus Judaism has rules regarding the use of language. No blasphemy. No lying. And no lashon ha’ra. And we have positive commandments. Teach torah. Keep promises. Rebuke the wrongdoer. And give credit where credit is due.
So then, how do our sages explain Miriam and Aaron’s outburst at Moses? Rashi and Ramban give an entirely different explanation, based on other verses that we read this morning. As you recall, Moses was instructed to select 70 elders to experience prophetic vision, in order to share the burden of leading a large community. In fact, he identified 72; six from each tribe; but only 70 were permitted to join Moses at the Tent of Meeting. The other two, Eldad and Medad, remained in the camp. When the gift of prophesy came to the 70, it also came to Eldad and Medad, and they too began to prophesy. When told of their acts, Moses did not rebuke them; but instead exclaimed, “would that all of the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would bestow his spirit upon them.” This concept of Moses’ humility is then repeated immediately after the scene with Miriam and Moses. It says, “Now Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on Earth.” [12:3] The reference to humility thus ties the two stories together.
According to Rashi and Rambam, citing Ibn Ezra, Moses’s wife, Zipporah witnessed Eldad and Medad prophesizing and remarked to Miriam her sorrow for their wives. Zipporah explained that following Moses’s experience at Sinai, he had stopped being intimate with her. Miriam and Aaron took offense at Moses’s decision, for they too were prophets but had not separated from their spouses. By Moses setting himself apart, he appeared to be self-aggrandizing.
This exegesis falls far from the text. Nechama Leibowitz, citing Joseph Kaspi, a medieval commentator, noted the same. Kaspi urged a more basic reading of the text. That Miriam and Aaron were simply complaining that Moses was acting improperly by marrying someone outside the community. Professor Beth Alpert Nackai, in A Women’s Commentary on the Torah, takes a similar view: that Moses had married a foreign woman and his siblings complain that he has broken the law while they, who are also leaders but who are not guilty of such wrong, remain subject to his authority.
But what does this teach us about argumentation? Rashi may have been familiar with Aristotelian logic. But rather than label Miriam and Aaron’s comments as a fallacious ad hominem, he places their comments into the context of community. And that context makes a difference.
Let’s compare what happened to Miriam and Aaron to what happens to Korach, which we read two weeks from now. Their essential complaints were the same. Miriam and Aaron felt that Moses was self-aggrandizing; and Korach asked Moses and Aaron why they exalt themselves over the rest of the congregation. The difference is how they made their comments. Miriam and Aaron spoke privately to Moses, whereas Korach gathered 250 men, leaders of the assembly, to witness their accusation. Whereas Miriam and Aaron thought that they were properly rebuking Moses, Korach sought to publicly humiliate him. Thus Miriam and Aaron did not seek to undermine social harmony, but Korach did.
What I do in my work is legal rhetoric, and it is a mixture of both Aristotelian and Jewish discourse. Like Aristotelian argument, the art of persuasion is important. A lawyer needs to maintain credibility. A good argument should appeal to a sense of what right, or fair; in other words, appeal to a sense of justice. And an argument must be logical, and based on evidence.
And legal discourse, like Jewish law, is also interested in social harmony. In our dealings with the Court, lawyers are to remain respectful and decorous. We cannot lie or commit fraud on the court. And we are to cite authority supporting our positions: thereby giving credit where credit is due.
A different world is not hard to imagine. Where name-calling is the start and end of discourse, we become a nation of bullies. The differences between us become the only relevant facts. Those in the majority develop a sense of privilege, because all that is important is that they are the majority; while the minority become isolated and marginalized.
In this week’s parasha, Miriam is punished for her outburst with an infliction of leprosy. But then, in a show of social harmony, the entire Congregation remains in place until Miriam is healed.
I think the simple point is that the language we choose reflects our social values. Using language respectfully permits us to connect with people, and to work in harmony.
I was fortunate. I had an opportunity to teach my son that the language we use is a choice, and we should choose wisely. As we head into this political season, I hope that we can look past the harsh language and instead make reasoned choices based on our values.