We are a people of words. We focus on Torah which is a book of divinely inspired words. We relate stories and accounts of our ancestors and pass those stories down from generation to generation in words.
We as a people are famous for our humor. There are endless examples, but here is my most recent favorite. Moses was talking to his psychiatrist. “I had a weird dream recently,” he says. “I saw my mother but then I noticed she had your face. I found this so worrying that I immediately awoke and couldn’t get back to sleep. I just stayed there thinking about it until 7am. I got up, made myself a slice of toast and some coffee and came straight here. Can you please help me explain the meaning of my dream?” The psychiatrist kept silent for some time, then said, “One slice of toast and coffee? Do you call that a breakfast?” Our humor is related in words.
We teach our children about the world and our place in it in words. One of the biggest milestones in our childrens’ lives is when they begin to speak words and then a few years later when they begin to read, broadening their world to other people in other lands, and it is all done with words.
Words are very powerful. They can build up and they can cut down. As a sports fan, I always wonder what coaches are saying before the big game or match. Sarah, Louis, Scott and I have been watching the Summer Olympics and cheering on Michael Phelps with his historic wins and shouting Mazel Tov to Aly Raisman and the US women’s gymnastics team. We have been supporting them with our words. But I wonder what their coaches say to them before they enter the pool or step on the mat. I have to imagine it’s words of encouragement and motivation like what Coach Herb Brooks famously said to the US hockey team right before the Miracle game against the Soviets at the 1980 Winter Olympics.
“Great moments are born from great opportunity. And that’s what you have here tonight, boys. That’s what you’ve earned here tonight. One game. If we played ’em ten times, they might win nine. But not this game. Not tonight. Tonight, we skate with them. Tonight, we stay with them. And we shut them down because we can! Tonight, WE are the greatest hockey team in the world. You were born to be hockey players. Every one of you. And you were meant to be here tonight. This is your time. Their time is done. It’s over. I’m sick and tired of hearing about what a great hockey team the Soviets have. Forget them. This is your time. Now go out there and take it.”
It is words like this that inspire us to greatness. It is words from coaches whom we find everywhere in our lives that encourage us to contribute in ways that we never thought possible before, using all of our unique talents and gifts.
Moses was such a coach. He led our people out of bondage on a dramatically challenging journey that stretched across a desert and 40 years. And throughout he acted as the spokesperson for God. And for most of that journey, when he spoke for God he spoke in God’s words. But in this week’s Parshah, which is titled Devarim, which you may have guessed, means words, Moses begins to speak to the people in his own words. He is 27 days from his death and he knows that. And he has decided to take those days to review and relate the lessons of our exodus and journey through his own understanding. He emphasizes our lack of faith and commitment but also reminds his team, our ancestors, that God has always been there for us in our trials and our battles and to not fear our enemies in the future because it is the Lord our God who will battle for and with us.
It is an extremely powerful idea to have Moses speaking to us in his own words. And when we start to process the world in our own words, we can change the outcome of almost any situation. Because our words are processed through our own filters. The filter can be dark and emphasize the negative part of any situation or the filter can be bright and emphasize the positive. When we tell of our challenges, we can talk about what we learned and how we grew as humans because of them or we can tell of what was lost. Both accounts are true but the way in which we frame our challenges, the filter we see them through and the words we choose to tell the stories of our lives can and do change how those stories end. Our words can change the outcome. Our words can change the future.
On this Shabbat, we are commemorating Tisha B’av a day early. The 9th of Av is considered a day of mourning and some Jewish people will fast as they do on Yom Kippur. Tisha B’av officially remembers the destruction of both Temples but has been framed in a more modern way by including other terrible times in our people’s history when the 9th of Av was pivotal.. These include the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290 and from Spain in 1492. People have also correlated events from the Holocaust to the 9th of Av by looking at the link of World War I to World War II. Many historians believe that the Holocaust was really a far reaching conclusion of World War I, and Germany declared war on Russia in 1914, officially starting World War I, on the 9th of Av. Regardless, it is a day of mourning and misfortune. But it can also be a day of hope. Pain becomes struggle when we stop using it as a warning to take action and start dwelling in it. Misfortune becomes devastation when we tell of what we lost rather than what we learned.
So as we face our week, let’s tell the story of our days through a filter of light. Like a camera where we choose to click on the flash, we can illuminate everything in our challenges that allows us to grow and contribute. To take the thoughts of both Coach Brooks and Coach Moses and say it in my own words…. ”Fear is the enemy of personal and spiritual growth. God is with us in the battle against that enemy. If we remember that, then this can be our time, and it can be filled with light and life. A life worth living.”