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April 11, 2013 3:14 am

Speak Nicely, But Clearly

avatar by Yossy Goldman

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That the Torah (Bible)  speaks in refined language is a principle of Biblical studies. The classic example is back in the story of Noah. There, when G-d tells Noah to take all the animals into the Ark, he speaks of the “clean” animals (hatehora) and the “animals which are not clean” (asher einena tehora). Although the Torah is generally exceedingly cryptic and sparse on words – every seemingly superfluous letter is expounded upon and interpreted by the Sages – here it uses an additional eight letters to avoid using the word teme’ah (literally, defiled or impure). From this, the Talmud teaches that we should never allow a shameful expression to pass our lips. If the Torah deliberately used eight extra letters that could have been avoided simply by saying the word teme’ah, then this sends a powerful message to us to watch our language.

And yet, a cursory look at this week’s readings reveals the word tamei occurring numerous times. Why is it that in the story of Noah the Torah goes out of its way not to use a negative word and here it uses it repeatedly, almost at whim?

The answer is that where it is a storyline one can afford to be more subtle and not pronounce a negative word. However, when it comers to halacha, to determining Jewish Law, one cannot afford subtleties or flowery language; one must be crystal clear in laying down the law and, yes, we must call a spade a spade. The Law is sacrosanct and in matters of Law there may be no ambiguities. Noah and the Flood is essentially a historical narrative, whereas the laws of our parsha deal with do’s and don’ts that must be expressed in no uncertain terms. When a Rabbi is called upon to answer a halachic question, he should not beat around the bush. His response must be clear and unequivocal. And if it is treif (not-kosher), then he must pronounce it treif!

Now, generally speaking, Rabbis should be gentle, nice and soft-spoken. They should suggest, not demand. The old ‘fire and brimstone’ types don’t work that well today. But sometimes Rabbis can be too gentle, too subtle and too undemanding. And not only in halachic matters but even in counseling.

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Psychologists and social workers will, in principle, never be directive with their clients. It is part of their professional code not to impose their opinions or personal values on those seeking their guidance. They will try to help them “see the wood from the trees” so they can make their own informed decisions. Rabbis, on the other hand, should have no qualms about giving direction. After all, it’s their job!

A fellow once came to see me about his therapist. “She doesn’t tell me what to do,” he complained. I explained that therapists don’t work that way. “You want someone to tell you what to do? Go to a Rabbi.”

If a couple goes for Marriage Counseling, a counselor is likely to guide them based on their hopes and aspirations. Do they really want to work it out or are they going through the motions on the way to the divorce lawyer? And if it is the latter, the counselor may very well help them on their way. A rabbi will not hesitate to explain that marriage is sacred and should be worked on and that divorce is an absolutely last resort when all else has failed. The counselor might ask “would you guys like to stay married?” while the rabbi might say “you must stay married.”  Then, he may refer them to a professional counselor who is committed to saving marriages.

Remember the kleptomaniac who bumped into an old friend? The friend remembered how guilty he had felt because of his compulsive shoplifting and asked him whether he still had the problem. “No,” said the fellow. “I went to a psychiatrist and he helped me solve my problem.” “That’s great, so you don’t shoplift anymore?” asked the friend. “Sure I shoplift. I just don’t feel guilty anymore.”

Please G-d; rabbis will be soft, supportive, friendly, loving and gentle. Please G-d; they will give clear direction when they have to.

Excerpted from the book From Where I Stand by Rabbi Yossy Goldman. Available at leading Jewish booksellers.

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