Harnessing the Power of Our Words

It is so easy to offer an opinion - to characterize a situation in a way that aligns neatly with our preconceptions. We are often eager to offer such opinions and less willing to consider the impact they may have on the listener.

This week's Torah portion, Sh'lach L'cha, tells the story of the twelve scouts, or spies, sent to Canaan to investigate the new land the Israelites were about to enter. As you might expect, the twelve spies returned with a variety of opinions about and insights from their venture into uncharted territory. They brought back huge clusters of grapes and agreed that the land "flows with milk and honey" - but most also painted a somber picture of what lay in store for the Israelites. They told of a land filled with "giants" and warned against attacking, insisting that "The country we traversed...devours its settlers."

Was this majority assessment an objective one? Or did it simply reflect fear? We cannot know for certain - but we do know that these spies' words led to wide-ranging demoralization among the Jewish people at a time when their continued existence required bravery and fortitude. The Torah itself considers the spies' warnings destructive falsehoods, reflecting a lack of confidence in themselves and G-d.  And the panic that these reports engendered enraged G-d to the point that only Moses' intercession saved the Israelites from annihilation.

For me the message is clear: Our words have a real and profound impact on others. Our opinions - however colored they may be by our own worldviews - can set into motion actions with far-reaching consequences. And today this is more apparent than ever.

As Jews and as Americans, we have a long and proud history of debate and discussion. We value the right to share our opinions freely. But lately something has changed. Perhaps it's our round-the-clock news cycles and social media platforms; we have nearly unlimited access to information. No matter what the cause, we are finding it more and more difficult to have civil, respectful conversations about important issues that affect us all. Opinions are easy to express; listening to opposing views is not so easy.

At Federation we believe that each person has something valuable to contribute to the conversation, and we believe in chesed, treating one another with caring and respect. To live out these core values, our Federation's Jewish Community Relations Council has brought together a group of individuals with a broad range of viewpoints to discuss how we can promote civil conversation here in Greater Hartford. We recognize that if our community is to remain strong and healthy, we must find common ground. We must find respectful ways of listening to one another without trying to change each other's views.

We are all concerned about the growing divide in our American and Jewish communities. Closing that divide depends on each of us committing to be civil, listening respectfully, and seeking areas of agreement instead of dwelling on disagreement.

Shabbat Shalom.


Howard Sovronsky
President and CEO


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