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  • Rabbi Mordecai Finley

Simple Wisdom, Step 3: Correct use of words


A few initial words:

Our 45th president could have said something wise, even if not to satisfaction of those who will condemn him no matter what. To say the least, he is not a person of wisdom.

Second, it feels unnecessary for me to condemn racism and Nazism, but perhaps it is necessary. Not saying something might be interpreted wrongly. So in case anyone is wondering, I condemn any racism, but especially racism against African Americans, given the moral failures and tragic consequences of racism against blacks in the history of the United States. I also mourn the tragic death of Heather Heyer.

I have read many passionate and eloquent words condemning the “Unite the Right” demonstration in Charlottesville. I am sure you have read many such articles, and I don’t think I have much to add at this time. White rage is real, dangerous and has to be addressed far beyond just condemning it. I have more to say, but not now.

I will be straightforward and say that I don’t like outrage and hatred, whatever its sources. I understand the emotional outbursts, but then calmer minds must prevail if reconciliation and peace will reign. I really do believe that love trumps hate in all directions, at least some of the time. In my words leading up the High Holy Days, I have counseled that the first step toward wisdom is respecting (or honoring) the intrinsic value of other human beings. This is hard to do especially when one finds another person repugnant. I have many stories I could tell of my facing up against hatred because I was white, Jewish or something else. I never found that hating back created any good. I am not a fighter, but not a hater. True to Hasidic teachings, I assume that hatred is a husk around some holy spark. To hate back thickens the husk. The spiritually wise person tries to break the husk and release the divine spark. Bad times call out for redemption before things get worse.

Speaking and acting with respect, even when drawing clear, firm and even ruthless boundaries is the first step of wisdom, you might say a virtue dimension of wisdom. The second step of wisdom is insight, into yourself and others. The third step is finding the right words.

A wise person, after some introspection and assessing a situation, works hard to find the right words. Simple wisdom tells us that certain words and phrases are guaranteed to make a situation worse and some will very likely make things better.

I want to move my attention away from national distress, and instead address the common things that I find going on in couples, families and communities.

Human beings are moved by desire. People want something. People want something to be different. People want things to fit their image of how things should be, from dinner to distribution of wealth.

When one is moved by the desire for something or for something to be different, one tries, usually through words, to get what one wants. Here is where the trouble begins.

How do we know whether what we want is fair, righteous or achievable? How do others feel about what I want? What do they want? The ego self does not care about such niceties. I was told by a verbally battered wife whom I counseled that her husband used to throw away food she cooked that he did not like, followed by a tirade of insults. She was terrified by his anger. She told me she wished he would come and see me. I reminded her: “Never try to persuade a resistant person to do, not do, understand, realize, or be aware of anything. Just decide what you are going to do next.”

She wanted him to stop yelling. She tried to persuade him to no avail. I counseled her not to try to persuade. He knew what she wanted. He was just saying no. She had to decide what she was going to do next. “Walk away” when he yells, I counseled. If he follows, leave the house. Have a bag ready. She finally left for good.

I asked her to follow this procedure of simple wisdom.

Generally, the first words one says to oneself are, “What exactly do I want?” I try to make sure that what I want is a specific behavior in time, something realistic, righteous and achievable. Ask for what you want in the briefest, most non emotionally charged way possible. No big prefaces or justifications. No “big words”. Not, “Please respect me” but a simple behavior in time: “Please lower your voice and stop insulting me.” Be willing to take no for an answer. In other words, if you get no, don’t try to persuade the other person out of “no.” Just decide what you are gong to do next.

I find that people in touchy situations use too many words to get what they want, trying to persuade the other person out of what they want. I find that people often don’t even know themselves exactly what they want. People sometimes feel dissatisfied, so they start arguing with others. Instead of reflection and simplicity, I hear of prefaces, justifications, digressions, analogies, rhetorical flourishes of criticizing, complaining, condemning, accusing, blaming, labeling, comparing, and using contemptuous gestures of eyes, face and hands. Of course, the unwise discussion partner does the same.

In touchy situations, a wise person uses very few words, and uses them carefully. Simple words with simple meanings. A wise person knows: “It does not matter what they do; what matters is the kind of person I want to become.”

Our words are profound determinants of who we are and who we want to become. In touchy situations, simple wisdom asks us to use simple words, use them carefully, take no for answer, and decide what you are going to do next.


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