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.
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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