As an educator I have done a lot of work with youngsters. Often I am the lead educator and I am teaching students. But I also spend a lot of time working with college aged young adults as they try to learn how to work with teens themselves. At camp, for example, the college aged counselors are living in the bunks with the campers. And I work with the counselors and train them to be more loving, caring, nurturing and effective in their responsibilities.
I do not know exactly how many times this has happened, but the following happens very often. A counselor comes to me complaining about a camper’s behavior and wants me to enforce a consequence that he or she has promised was coming. Sometimes this has been a long process and we have talked it through with the camper and something like losing some free time for the night is appropriate for them. But sometimes, when the counselor is tired or frustrated, they just snap and deliver the consequence without coordinating with me or talking it through. So, I have a counselor who wants me to back them up and a camper who has been told there is a consequence coming. The counselor swore that the kid would get in trouble and now their word is on the line. The counselor spoke too soon and now his or her words have built a scenario that they cannot get themselves out of. I imagine that many of us could remember a scenario where we spoke too quickly and then felt the need to stand behind our words regardless of what we might actually think or feel.
In this week’s Parsha, a double portion of Matot and Ma’Sei, we begin with the formative laws of oaths, “If a man makes a vow to the LORD or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips/ אִישׁ כִּי-יִדֹּר נֶדֶר לַיהוָה, אוֹ-הִשָּׁבַע שְׁבֻעָה לֶאְסֹר אִסָּר עַל-נַפְשׁוֹ--לֹא יַחֵל, דְּבָרוֹ: כְּכָל-הַיֹּצֵא מִפִּיו, יַעֲשֶׂה.” The Rabbis teach us something very valuable here. In the Talmud, we learn the meaning of the verse, “‘He shall not break his word,’ [means that] He cannot break it, but others can break it for him.” The Sfas Emes teaches us that we as human beings are called “Speakers.” It is what distinguishes us from other animals. But our speech is powerful. It leads us and pulls us after it.
We build worlds and holy spaces with our speech. Yet sometimes we get caught by our words and are pulled by them in the wrong direction. That is when it is helpful to have others around us that can offer us help from a different vantage point. In the case of the camper and counselor, I can soften what was said by them when I talk to the counselor. I as an authority figure have the position to discuss the situation, and that is often enough of a consequence to motivate a change in behavior. In doing so, I have also released the counselor from his or her “oath” that there would be trouble for this kid.
As we embrace the new month of Av, I hope we can all be careful with our words. On the 9th of Av, we mourn the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem. The next nine days are traditionally ones of sadness as we prepare for this difficult day in our calendar. The Temples were destroyed because we tore the walls down with words of hate. May we build everlasting spaces for love and holiness with our words. And may those words come speedily from our lips.
Rabbi Ezra Balser has been the rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom since July 1, 2016. He received his “smicha” (ordination) in June 2017 from Hebrew College while also earning a Master’s Degree in Jewish Studies. He has also received the iCenter's Certification in Israel Education.