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Words, Words, Words... -- Chronicle Online/The WORD 07/20/23

Weekly On-line Rabbi's D'var-Torah

July 20, 2023 2 Av 5783 Shabbat Chazon DevarimLast week, I led a discussion about artificial intelligence with a group of men from our Men’s Club. Although the ancient rabbis could not have imagined the kinds of robots and computers that are made today, they had their own ideas about human-made creatures. For example, the Talmud preserves a story about a rabbi named Rava who lived in 4th-century-CE Babylonia. He somehow created a being with a human form. When this creature approached one of Rava’s peers, Rabbi Zeira, he tried to talk to the creature. But the creature couldn’t speak. Rabbi Zeira sent him away, saying, “Return to your dust!” (See BT Sanhedrin 65b.) In the Middle Ages, there was a belief that a righteous person could breathe life into a figure made from clay or wood. This creature was called a “Golem.” Just like in the Talmud, though, Golems couldn’t speak, which made them hard to control. Some scholars believe that the Golem was the inspiration for “Frankenstein.” In any event, over the centuries, the rabbis came to conclude that one of the defining features of humanity is the ability to communicate using words. We can certainly quibble with that definition. We know of human beings who cannot communicate. And we know of human-made machines that can communicate. However, we can certainly agree that words matter. Words have power. In our tradition, God created the world through words, starting with, “Let there be light.” God gave our ancestors “Ten Utterances” on Mt. Sinai (often mistranslated as the “Ten Commandments”). The final book of the Torah, in which Moses gave his valedictory, is called “Devarim” in Hebrew, which means “words.” And when the Temple was destroyed nearly 2,000 years ago, the sacrifices of our ancestors were replaced with the words of prayers. Words are important in our tradition, and in all of these examples, that power was used for the good of humanity. So, when a song is released and that song jumps to the top of the country charts, it’s hard to ignore the words that so many others seem to be enjoying. Even though I’m not the biggest fan of country music, I couldn’t avoid hearing the words of Jason Aldean’s “Try That in a Small Town” (and no I’m not linking to it!). He claims that the words of his song were intended to steer us toward a better version of America – an America that he remembers from his youth. The thing about words is – it’s not just what we mean when we write them or speak them. It’s how those words are understood by others. So, Jason Aldean can argue until he’s blue in the face that the words of his song are not racist and are not a call to arms. However, the listeners of his song are hearing something different. In a private conversation, if our words somehow offend the other participant, we have an obligation to apologize – even if it was unintentional. Even in that small setting, our words have power. When a song that has the ability to reach millions of people causes fear of violence among a segment of the population, I think the singer has an even greater responsibility to address the situation. His words have tremendous power, and he is abusing that power. Sadly, we’ve seen too much irresponsible speech in public spaces in recent years. Everyone wants to win the argument and make sure that the losers of the argument know they lost. We’ve forgotten how to speak respectfully even when we disagree with someone. We have used our words to damage friendships, families, and communities. It seems to me that it’s time to remember that we can use the power of words for good as well. To me, at least, that’s what a great song should do. Shalom, RAF.

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