Tuesday, October 26, 2010

To Whom Should Our Children Turn to In Times of Trouble?

To Whom Should Our Children Turn to In Times of Trouble?

October 22nd, 2010

Rabbi Gary S. Creditor


Though it was long ago, I remember fairly well being a teen-ager. I remember high school, USY, continuing Jewish studies locally and in New York, and playing various ball games on the street in front of our homes. In high school I remember derogatory comments made to classmates who were Italian and Polish. I was the token Jew so they left me alone. There were very few African Americans to attract attention. There were derogatory comments made about sex. Gender was only a word that appeared in English grammar books. Many of us thought that our lives should mirror "Leave It to Beaver," a later group would think about "Happy Days," or other television shows that made everyone appear perfect, everything was neat, and everyone had the exactly correct word for every scenario. There was a reality gap between our lives and those shows. There were tensions in school between groups of students, parental expectations and what we could realistically achieve, with teachers, and with classmates. Life had its ups and downs. We didn't have the electronic connections of today to bridge the distances. While this language was not used, there were many things hidden in the closet that didn't dare come out. With the distance of decades and much reflection, I can say that I didn't have as challenging a life as I thought I did then. With all that being said and true, I also knew that I was blessed in two exceptional ways: I always had at least one teacher with whom I felt confident to talk; I always knew that I could turn to my Rabbi.


About twenty-five years ago, when I was a Rabbi on Long Island, a group of teen agers in Northern New Jersey committed suicide. I remember that vividly. As a young father with children I was terribly distraught. That Shabbat I preached a sermon lamenting their deaths, but I also asked a question: Besides their parents firstly, to whom should they and could they have turned? Was there no one out there with a sympathetic ear and open heart that would not be judgmental but offer them love and a safe haven for their feelings, pains, and troubles and help them somehow, some way? They were not Jewish, so I asked: did they turn to their ministers, priests or other religious figures?


In that sermon I declared, and in light of recent events such as the suicide of the student from Rutgers University and particularly the suicides of a large number of gay youths who were bullied, and even if not connected to that issue, I issue these words:


Every child of any age, teenager in high school, collegiate wherever they are, especially with our technological communications should never feel alone, should never think that there is no one to turn to. They can turn to me as their Rabbi. Not that I have every answer for them. I don't. Not that I know everything there is to know. I don't. But as I stood with most of them for their Bar/Bat Mitzvah and Confirmation, as I stand this Shabbat with Eli, and even if I didn't, as their Rabbi, representing our faith that is a source of strength, insight and comfort, I stand ready and willing to help them. None of our children, regardless of age, is ever alone. Of course as their parents we are their first line of love, defense and guidance. But for whatever reason they can't or won't, they never should even imagine doing anything terrible to themselves, or to others. I want every one of our children, wherever they are in the world to know, that especially through the power of email, I am there for them, in whatever capacity I can help them. Give them this message of love. Give them your message of love. Give them my email: rabbi.creditor@bethelrichmond.org. And if the phone better serves them, then call me at shul. Call me at home. Regardless of hour. There have been those who have taken me up on this.


Across the years of my Rabbinate there have been youth besides adults who have turned to me for their personal needs. Sometimes it was help in writing a college paper. That was a challenge. Other times it was more personal questions. I always assured them that they and I were in confidential communication so that they felt able to share whatever it was. It was my mitzvah to assist them. It was terribly important to me that they knew that there was a place and person, who represented their core values and who cared about them, that they knew that it was safe to turn. This continues even in this electronic age. My ear and heart was and is always open to them. I pray for their and our happiness, success, fulfillment and contentment. I pray for their peace of heart, mind and soul. I kvell in seeing them grow up and stand with their spouses under chuppah, name their babies and attend the brit milahs. I stand with them always. At any time. For any reason. Their Judaism is theirs for all times, far beyond their 13th birthday. I dare say that their Judaism can be, should be and must be more important to them after their b'nai mitzvah, after their Confirmations, as they will inhabit a much more difficult world, much more challenging life, after they leave home, than while they live in it. It is then, when they experience the existential challenges of life, when they confront the highest issues, when they confront their sexuality, that our faith – Judaism and its values - can inform them, support them and strengthen them. As their Rabbi it is critically important for me to be accessible to them, for them to feel comfortable and capable of turning then, and never feel alone, never feel rejected, never feel abandoned. We walk together in the sunlight of bright, easy and happy days such as this, and in the valleys among the dark shadows. We walk with love. We walk with them always.

                                                                                                            Shabbat Shalom.


Monday, October 11, 2010

“Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me.” Snyder vs. Phelps (Westboro Baptist Church)

"Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me."

Snyder vs. Phelps (Westboro Baptist Church)

Richmond, Virginia

Rabbi Gary S. Creditor

October 8th, 2010


Yesterday (Thursday) I read in the Times-Dispatch the article concerning the case before the Supreme Court filed by Albert Snyder, the father of a dead Marine, Lance Corporal Matthew A. Snyder, who died in Afghanistan, against the Westboro Baptist Church. They came to the funeral of his son and carried signs with slogans such as "Thank God for Dead Soldiers," "Thank God for IED's," "God Hates You," "You are going to hell," and "God Hates the USA," among others. While reading the article I remembered the phrase we all learned as children:

"Sticks and stones can break your bones but words can never hurt you."

I really didn't think about that when this same loathsome group came to Richmond in the spring and we joined hands with hundreds others at the Holocaust Museum hearing their disgusting, even blood curdling tirades. I have been in the proximity of some really ugly stuff, but that "took the cake." My mother quoted me this maxim. Many questions sprung into my head as I read the article and thought about this maxim.


Was my mother wrong? Why did she say this to me? Where did it come from?

Can anybody say any thing at any time in any place and get away with it?

Is that what the First Amendment really means?

Don't words truly hurt?


In the initial suit by Albert Snyder he was awarded damages of $11 million. Another judge reduced it to $5 million. The Richmond-based 4th Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the award entirely. And so it is now before the Supreme Court.


These thoughts intersected in my mind with my teaching last Shabbat about being created in God's image as I connected that with the issue of bullying, also seeming to be ever more prevalent. Can we really say anything we want to anyone we want to, any time we want to say it, no matter how vile, how disgusting, how upsetting?

A few thoughts:


We certainly want the freedom to say whatever we want. We want to tell governing officials that we like them or we don't; we endorse their policies or not; that we disagree or agree with the government's policies on the war in Afghanistan, health care, illegal immigration and anything else that comes to mind. We want to be able to put up signs for whichever candidate we endorse, and the right not to put up any at all. We can take out ads to support and reject. We want the freedom to print our Bibles and prayer books without censorship and our religious books proclaiming our faith, even as, especially as a distinct minority and nobody can stop us. Particularly as Jews, a tiny minority in an overwhelming majority Christian country, understanding despotism and tyranny from our history, this right is crucial for our freedom, for everyone's freedom. We can build our sukkot, put up our menorot, light our nayrot and wear our kippot! Thank God for America!



There are some limits on what you can say and when you can say it: but not much more. You can't cry "Fire" falsely in a crowded theatre. You can't threaten to kill the President. You can't threaten to blow up a van in the middle of mid-town New York with impunity. After that, "all bets are off." It seems to me that our society rejects the notion of boundaries, limitations, and restrictions on what we can say or do, regardless of the next person's feelings and/or beliefs. Our personal right to do whatever we want to do trumps everything else: common decency, modesty, privacy, even morals and ethics. The slogan "Have it your way" extends to every realm beyond food: how to dress, how loud we can play our car radios, and how high we can fly the flag. The unfettered freedom we desire on one hand fashions an atmosphere, an ambience, and aura that can create an ugly, mean and horrible world to live in. We don't live in isolation. We live in context. The words spoken and waved, printed hard-copy or electronic streaming on You-Tube, Facebook and Twitter, are impossible to deny or escape.



I was curious to see if there was an origin of the oft-repeated phrase. While appearing in slightly differing versions, there is no known author, nor time or place. Especially as I have had to use words, countless words, in sermons, speeches, articles, teaching and counseling, I came to the conclusion that my mother was right and that my mother was wrong.


Of course she was right! She is my mother! Even with out saying it specifically, she was saying that I had to have inner strength to stand up and not be broken by harsh and mean statements. I would hear anti-Semitic canards and need to have a back-bone. I would feel the pain of then Soviet Jewry and use words against the then USSR to free them. I would hear unpleasantries and need not become unpleasant myself. My mother was right! My body could be broken physically by sticks, stones and baseball bats. But my spirit needed to be stronger when bad or ill-meaning people would say nasty things at me. And I needed to learn not to speak badly at, to, or concerning others.



But my mother was also wrong. In researching for this sermon I found exactly the words I wanted in a site called Helium.com, in an article entitled "Relationship & Family: Friends & Peers: Sticks and stones may break my bones – and words hurt, too!" by Lonnette Harrell. I could footnote every part from our Jewish sources.

"There's an old children's saying, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me." If only that were true, but it's a fable that needs to be laid to rest. Words can hurt a lot more than sticks and stones. They may not break bones, but they can surely break hearts. Words can devastate. Words can wound; words can kill. Words can ruin reputations and destroy relationships. There's just no doubt about it-words hurt.

"Judging, cruel, venomous, and hateful words are verbal abuse at its worst. They leave long lasting emotional cuts and bruises. When someone hurts us, we play the tape over and over. No matter how many times we try to dismiss the hurtful tirade, sometimes those words are with us forever. There may be words from your childhood that you still can't escape. Stupid. Fatso. Ugly. Lazy. Crybaby. Dummy. Loser. Moron. Sissy. Chicken. And on and on. It starts with one word when we're young, but as we grow, the hurtful sentiments become phrases and even paragraphs. If we don't find a way to heal, they can cause lasting, permanent damage.

"Some people are so angry and bitter that they are ready to strike out at everyone. Their words are a reflection of their souls. The tongue only speaks what comes from the heart. Often they are angry, bitter, resentful people who want everyone to be as miserable as they are. They need healing and deliverance. And they need to understand that so called "honesty" is never an excuse for rudeness or cruelty.

"I have felt my heart physically ache from the pain of hurtful words. I have cried myself to sleep when words have wounded me deeply. A broken spirit is much harder to heal than a broken bone. So many of us carry these invisible scars that bring us untold pain.

"Even strong people will often collapse under the continual verbal attack of someone who really wants to wound them. Proverbs 11:9 says, "The hypocrite with his mouth destroys a neighbor." Proverbs 12:18 reminds us, "Reckless words pierce like a sword..." Put-downs are designed to gain control over someone else. (Hence, a lot of the "bullying" that children face in school and elsewhere.) When the person is confronted for their inappropriate actions, and not allowed to remain in control, they get even nastier.

"If someone continues to treat us with cruelty and disrespect, it is time to consider distancing ourselves from them. They are detrimental to our self-esteem, and quite frankly, we just don't need those kind of people in our lives. It's important to have boundaries, and to know your limits as to what you will allow.

"Those closest to us have an extra advantage when it comes to wounding, because they know our vulnerabilities, and we care what they think of us. A few well chosen words can annihilate. When they use intimate knowledge of our weaknesses, it is the worst kind of betrayal.

"Words are responsible for wars, and the end of friendships. Even the tone of the words can determine the meaning.

"It may be one remark, thoughtlessly tossed our way, but it impacts our future happiness, because we just can't get it out of our head. It becomes an inner dialogue with no "off" button.

"Verbal abuse is more than an occasional raised voice. It can include intimidation, making fun of someone, threats, embarrassment, or an attempt to control, manipulate, or demean another. When these things occur, it is not okay; it is verbal abuse. Verbal abusers will try to put the blame on you, and make you feel like you did something to deserve their cruelty, when in fact, you did not. They need to take responsibility for their actions. No one has a right to verbally abuse you because you don't agree with them. They intentionally use the words they do, because they know they cause pain.

"The Harvard Mental Health Letter (April, 2007) suggests that when abuse is continual and harsh, post-traumatic stress syndrome can occur. This is the same stress-oriented disorder that combat troops may experience. Verbal abuse can also lead to depression and disassociation disorders, including multiple personalities, hallucinations, increased physical symptoms, and being unable to recall parts of the past.

"I have been hurt, not only by words that were said, but also by words that weren't said. When we see an injustice, we have a responsibility to stand up for what is right. So your silence can bring great sorrow as well.

"Remember, words can be weapons. Words can destroy. The scars they leave can be more painful than a physical assault."

[Sources: http://www.news.harvard.edu/ga zette/2007/04.26/05-abuse.html]


I would wish the members of the Supreme Court to read this article and consider it carefully in their deliberations as they balance our desire First Amendment freedom of speech and pain and cruelty inflicted by the Westover Baptist Church members. There has to be some balance.


But I would also challenge ourselves to contemplate how we speak to others and about others. What do we say and how do we say it? What is our tone and our demeanor? What kind of world are we living in? What kind of world do we want? And as parents and grandparents, what we are modeling for our children and grandchildren? Do we give them a backbone and make them sensitive to others at the same time? Do we teach them the words of the Psalmist (34):


"Keep your tongue from speaking evil, and your lips from speaking guile"


We might not influence the Supreme Court, but we can make a better world.

Shabbat Shalom.