Union for Reform Judaism Member Congregation

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In the past few days, we have been subjected to celebrities behaving badly. I will address the two most recent incidents, but they come at a time when public discourse in general is deteriorating by the day, taking on an increasingly coarse and destructive cast. Nevertheless, I will begin with the davar that I had started earlier this week.

This week our Torah portion records an unfortunate incident in the life of Miriam, sister of Moses and Aaron, and leader and protector of our people. Miriam played a central role in watching over Moses when he was a baby, as he floated down the Nile in a wicker basket to escape the murderous Egyptian soldiers. Along with Moses, she led our people on dry land through the parted waters of the Sea of Reeds, and led the women in song. And, according to the midrash, a miraculous well followed the Children of Israel in the desert, until the moment of Miriam’s death here in our parashah. Then, the well dried up.

But Miriam’s life was also colored by a terrible incident out there in the desert. For some reason that we don’t entirely understand, at one point, Miriam opened up and complained about Tzippora, Moses’ wife, identifying her as “the Cushite woman.” This is taken to be a racist remark, since in all likelihood, Tzippora’s skin was dark, as the daughter of a Midianite priest. For this intemperate and hurtful speech, God punished Miriam with a leprous skin affliction, until her brothers pleaded for her recovery.

So, while Miriam overall is embraced in our tradition as a prophetess and savior of our people, she was certainly not without her blind spots, and gave in to the temptation of lashon hara—evil speech—one of the most disagreeable of human traits.

When I began writing this davar, it was directly in the aftermath of the loathsome tweet from Roseanne Barr, regarding Valerie Jarrett, President Obama’s Director of the Office of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs, all through his administration. I will not repeat Barr’s repulsive remark, I am sure it is well known to everyone by now. What I will say is that it is completely consistent with the vulgarity and racism that all of us have come to expect from the filth that has blown out of Barr’s mouth virtually throughout her career. But this one upped the ante—because it not only singled out an exemplary public servant, it also embodied the unbridled racism that has characterized the tenor of public discourse in our country from the first moment of the Trump administration. And often, the president himself has been the offender-in-chief. Absent from our public discourse is any sense of respect for other people, and any level of sophistication of thought, speech, and behavior.

Roseanne Barr was appropriately punished, and was summarily dismissed by ABC, and rightly so.

But then, one of the darlings of the liberal community, Samantha Bee, added her own vulgarity to the mix, and in so doing, damaged her own case, and our case as well. I will not repeat the word that she used on the air, albeit on a Cable show. That particular word is one that I never use, even in my most unguarded moments, because I find it particularly revolting and violent against women. But that is a personal preference. My larger concern is that by using it, Bee damaged her own message, which was an extremely important one. If you’re trying to highlight the abomination of this administration’s immigration policy that has children being separated from their parents, don’t trample over your own message with obscenities that are sure to muddy the waters and mute the very message you’re trying to communicate!

Should Samantha Bee lose her job too? Does she get a pass just because she’s on my side of the political spectrum, as opposed to the likes of Roseanne Barr? I pose this question as I record my own personal monthly contribution to the ACLU for the protection of the First Amendment and freedom of speech. And if we’re going to expect a certain level of respect from public figures, then we need to do that with some level of consistency. I leave this for you to continue to ponder.

My concern is for all of us—as human beings, as Jews. Our tradition teaches us that lashon hara—evil speech—allowing destructive comments about others, and repulsive, obscene speech to come out of our own mouths—is an impulse that we need to guard ourselves against in every one of our interactions with people; whether one-to-one, in group settings, or on more public platforms.

The Psalmist admonishes:
Who is the one who is eager for life, who desires years of good fortune?
Guard your tongue from evil, and your lips from deceitful speech.
Shun evil and do good, seek integrity, and pursue it.
(Psalms 34.14-15)