Archive for March, 2018


People become attached to certain words. They—particularly slang words—can help someone display distinctiveness or demonstrate belonging to a group. Many decades have produced cool, dig it, boss, bitchin’, yo, wassup, Bart Simpson’s partee and the now widely accepted— and often-used F-word. For some years, I’ve been partial to grace and dignity. Now, I have a new favorite word—and it isn’t English.

My new fave appears in the Torah’s story of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32:1ff). For it, I’m indebted to Cantor David Frommer of San Francisco’s Congregation Sherith Israel and last week’s citing of commentary by Rabbi David Fohrman.

Our story: God becomes angry at the “stiff-necked” Israelites after they compel Aaron to make a young bull of gold to replace Moses, still meeting with God atop Mount Sinai. Knowing of the calf, God says He will destroy the children of Israel and make a great people of Moses’ descendants. Moses’ response: Why? Why be angry at Your people? Why enable Egypt to say You freed Your people only to slaughter them in the wilderness? What will that do for Your reputation?

The Hebrew word used here for why is lamah (rhymes with mama). Yet there’s another word for why in the Torah—madua (ma–doo-ah). Why (madua) lamah?

According to Rabbi Fohrman, “Madua, from the word mada, is the scientific ‘why’. … When Moses looked at the burning bush … [he asked] what is it about this bush that causes it not to burn? It is a question about the past that would explain the present.”

Lamah,” Rabbi Forhman explains, “is a contraction of ‘le mah’, to what, for what, for what purpose. It is a question about the future.”

I’m into lamah. When I get angry or down, when some disappointment induces me to react negatively, I ask myself, lamah? Not why I feel angry, down or disappointed. That’s a madua question. Rather, what purpose will be served by lashing out at someone—or myself?

Lamah constitutes more than a lesson in linguistics. We’re talking real life. Berating others might make us feel better momentarily when we feel questioned or put down. But how will we feel later if we damage or sever a relationship? How many times do we fly off the handle only to regret our words and deeds? Often, we apologize. Maybe the offended person forgives. But does that person forget?

Most of us learned the wisdom behind lamah as children: Think before you speak. If you get angry, count to ten. But in adults, the desire to get in the next word or the last—and do it immediately—often overpowers our learning and judgment.

The rabbis of the Talmud considered gossip—lashon hara—and negative statements sins akin to murder. They kill the soul. Thoughtless words, they advised, resemble arrows. Once released, they can be regretted but not recalled.

If only we, from the humblest citizens to those at the pinnacle of power, could remember daily that lamah can prevent fomenting confusion, resentment, hatred and violence. That words matter. That measuring our responses to others’ words can defuse rather than fuel challenging situations.

If only.

This post marks number 350 since I began since September 2010. It marks a good time for me to take a lengthy break and focus on some other things for a while. The post will resume on April 20.

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The famed evangelist Billy Graham was buried today. As a kid in the ’fifties, I saw bits of his massive TV revivals. Later, more evangelical leaders spoke publicly in the name of God. Is God pleased?

Since the social upheavals of the ’sixties, many evangelicals have circled the wagons. A movement that shunned politics turned highly political. Issues ranging from abortion to gun control became emblematic of Christian identity.

The result? Many evangelical leaders will back any politician—no matter how un-Christian his speech and behavior—who supports their objectives. If the president of the United States—or any other politician—talks and acts in ways ecumenical leaders would condemn in their own families and churches, they give him a pass. Why such tolerance for sin?

David Brody, evangelical author and host of “Faith Nation” on the Christian Broadcasting Network, explained in last Sunday’s New York Times, “… the goal of evangelicals has always been winning the larger battle over control of the culture, not to get mired in the moral failings of each and every candidate. For evangelicals, voting in the macro is the moral thing to do, even if the candidate is morally flawed.”

In the name of God, proponents of morality support immoral men and excuse their iniquities to control America—Brody’s word. Sadly, some politically conservative Jews do the same. If Donald Trump professes staunch support for Israel, Torah doesn’t matter. Barack Obama’s $38 billion aid package to the Jewish State? Dismissed.

I have no desire to bash evangelicals. The movement includes Christians of good faith. I understand their pain that the percentage of Americans identifying as Christians continues to fall. But many evangelicals also fear the demographic reality that whites soon will comprise less than fifty percent of the population. Women can exercise their own judgment to have an abortion. LGBTQ Americans maintain their right to live unhindered by others. And most Americans support common-sense gun control.

There’s a meaningful difference between upholding a religious mandate for yourself and forcing your views on others. Evangelicals should feel free to interpret the Christian Bible any way they like. They owe the rest of us the freedom to uphold our own views—religious or secular.

Billy Graham saw the light. Laurie Goodstein wrote in The Times last Monday that Graham admitted in his later years he had been mistaken in becoming too close to politicians. He also admitted that as a confidante of Richard Nixon, he not only listened to Nixon’s anti-Semitic remarks without protest but responded with anti-Semitic remarks of his own. It takes a big man to fess up.

These days, big men are hard to find. Franklin Graham runs the ministry his father began. In the name of God, Franklin called Islam “a very wicked and evil religion,” proclaimed Barack Obama a Muslim and loudly supports Donald Trump.

Sweeping immoral acts and offensive speech under the rug to advance causes in the name of God only undercuts religious leaders’ credibility. That’s why so many young evangelicals are turning away from their sin-blind elders.

They say politics makes strange bedfellows. Toss religion under the covers, and the nation winds up with the Golden Calf—or at least, Rosemary’s Baby.

What? You don’t know Rosemary’s Baby? Check it out!

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