Words

By Donna Jacobs Sife

There is a story about a grandfather, walking through a forest with his grandson. The boy asks his grandfather if it is true that the lion is the king of the forest. “It is true, my son.” “Then grandfather, why is it that every time I hear of man and lion, it is always the man that wins.” “It will always be like that my son,” the old man replied gently, “until the lion tells the story.”

There are many ways to tell a story. History depends upon who is witnessing, whether they are man or lion, what they carry from their past, what they hope for a future. I receive every morning , emails from many men and lions. Some tell stories of massacres and refusniks, others of putting children in the firing line, of deceit and treachery. I walk down the street to be met by passionate words of outrage about the immorality of Palestinians. I am approached in the middle of a stretch in yoga class to be told that the problem is that the UN gave a land to the Jews in the first place. I fill up my car at the petrol station, to be met by desperate pleas of how do we get the Jews out of Palestine.

I feel like I am in the front line of battle, dodging hand grenades of fear and loathing, bracing myself for the onslaught of words that are marching in a straight line towards me, with guns pointing . Words that act as undercover agents, that look innocent enough, but are actually there to trap the heretics - words like occupation, or Jihad, or refusnik, Some words are hostages, being held by one side and withheld from the other - words like self defence, or justice, or truth. There are the traitor words, that join the enemy forces - words like Zionism, once the great hope of the Left, and now its favourite scourge. And then there are the big missile rocket words, that explode across the landscape of war, destroying everything that comes before or after it - words like ‘God’s will’, ‘God given’, or ‘Divine right.’

I don’t want to hear any more facts. I don’t trust them. What I do trust is the quest for peace, my love for Israel, and the belief in a universal right to a homeland. Facts won’t change that for me. When a fact comes my way, I want to ask who it is speaking for, what is its source, what is its purpose, do I need to know this, is someone or something being hurt by the telling of it. I want to ask if it will further the quest for peace. The same questions in fact that we are required to ask when l’shon hara, or gossip, comes our way.

Judaism sees l’shon hara as extremely destructive to societies and communities. The Chafetz Chaim wrote lengthy lessons regarding L’Shon Hara, a sampling of which are as follows.

It is lashon hara to convey a derogatory image of someone even if that image is true and deserved; it is slanderous (motzi shem ra) to do so when the image is false. It is lashon hara to convey information about people that can cause them physical, psychological or financial harm. Lashon hara is not limited to verbal communication; the written word, body language, innuendo, and the like can also be hurtful. It is lashon hara to speak against a community, race, ethnic group, gender, or age group as a whole. Do not listen to lashon hara or r'chilut. Give everyone the benefit of the doubt.

We want the truth. We want the real story that will once and for all prove that we are right and we are good . And so we read and read, news reports, statistics, CNN, Jerusalem Post....rejecting the stories that do not fit with our view, and grabbing the one that does. ‘At last, I finally found it.. Here is the story that tells the Truth’ .

And we put it in our arsenal, as an offering to our same story-bearing battalion; or to use against those others who have another story. It gets scary when we meet others, all with their own arsenal of proof and truth, because then we have to consider that our story is just another option. So we cling to it, because it is all we have, and try desperately to convince the ‘other’ - that they are wrong and we are right.

Its like the story of the blind men and the elephant. The king tells the men to go and find out what an elephant looks like and then come back and describe it to him. The four men go out and begin to feel the elephant. One got the trunk, another the tail, another still the leg, and finally, the ear. They went back and described the elephant as they understood it. “It is like a little worm your majesty.” “Are you mad? Its like a thick snake.” “What are you talkiong about?” said the third blind man “It is great tree trunk”. “You’re all mad,” said the last of the blind men, “it is thin and wide like a great leaf in the forest.” And they argued and argued, and the King never found out what an elephant looked like.

Leading up to the solidarity rally the other day, I had a skirmish with words. For a week, I wrestled with what wording I should put on my sign. I settled on “Homeland, Peace and Security for All.” I didn’t mention the “P” word. I didnt want to distract from the focus, that of giving Israel support, but neither did I feel it said enough. There is a feeling that, at such events, we are really only permitted to take a hold of the same part of the elephant. The part that says - them against us. We are good, they are bod. We are right, they are wrong. And yet, I suspect that a lot of Jews in my community are holding other parts of the elephant. Some may feel compassion for the Palestinians, and deep empathy for their cause. Some may love Israel without condition, but feel that they cannot support the actions of the Israeli government. Some may be nursing discomfort at the polarization that occurs, wanting to support Israel, but not neccessarily attack the Palestinians. And I do believe that these voices of doubt and love and struggle have a lot to offer, and creates a stronger and more vital community. One that is willing to hear as many stories as possible, in an attempt to see what the elephant really does look like. If we are not permitted, for instance, to seperate the concept of Israel, with the actions of the Government, Israel may well lose support, because there is nowhere else to go. The fear that governs the desire for one story, paradoxically creates the very thing it fears.

I have no answers, only questions and of course a final story.

The same grandfather from the first story in this article is once again walking with his grandson. “Why is there war, grandpa?” the boy asked. “I don’t know” said the old man. A little later the boy asked “ Why do people hurt each other?” Once again the grandfather responded, “I dont know, son.” Later still the boy asked, “But grandfather, why do some people hate and some people love?”

“I don’t know” was the reply.

Some time later the boy asked his grandfather if it was annoying to have him ask so many questions. And the grandfather replied. “My dear boy, if you didn’t ask - how would you learn.”