Julian Assange was arrested last week, hauled out of the Ecuadoran embassy in London by the local police. He’d been sheltering in the building for seven years. Or, you could say that he was holed up there.
It depends on your point of view – is he a patriot who released secret government information that needed to see the light of day, or a traitor who endangered hundreds of people’s lives?
The way we phrase things can change the way others understand them. It is possible to tell the truth and mislead someone, possible to use word choices to convey an impression that is not accurate.
Truth itself is a dodgy thing. I often talk about little T truth and big T truth; truth that has to do with facts, and Truth that comes from personal conviction or belief. Is the story of the Exodus from Egypt factually true? Probably not, but its message of the possibility of redemption most certainly is.
And there are emotional truths. Have you ever known someone who feels guilty about something they weren’t responsible for? It does no good to tell them “It’s not your fault.” We can’t change another’s truth by telling them it’s not true. Humans just don’t work that way.
In the weekly cycle of Torah readings, we’ve been reading the section in Leviticus about so-called leprosy. It says that a house can be infected with a plague. This, by the way, is absolutely true, as anyone knows who has had to tent their house for termites or dealt with mold.
But our sages took all the talk about skin eruptions and houses that are infected, and said that in truth, the Torah wants to teach us something about how we treat each other. Specifically, about how we talk about each other.
Among the most damning things we can say about someone are truths. “I’m not gossiping, I’m just telling the truth!” we say. “Did you hear what so-and-so said? It’s true, I was there!”
The truth is, that we sometimes use truth as a weapon. Unfortunately, our politicians are adept at that. And unfortunately, so are we. So if truth is tricky, how can we as a society do a better job of communicating with each other, without mangling or abusing the truth?
There is a principle in the Talmud that says, “From the negative you can infer the positive.” So a couple of years ago, while wondering how to do this when it comes to plagues, I typed the phrase “opposite of plague” into a search engine, and the word blessing popped up.
And if this is so, if blessing is the opposite of plague, then the answer to solving societal plagues is deceptively simple. We just have to spread blessings wherever we go. Easy, right?
Still hoping that the internet could shed light on the issue, I typed “define the word blessing.” The Merriam-Webster dictionary offered this: “The act or words of one that blesses.” Ignoring their poor grammar, a definition that uses the word being defined is unclear at best.
Giving up on the internet, I turned to Judaism again, which says that the word blessing means to increase, or “to bring down Divine abundance.” When we bless someone or bless God in gratitude for something, we bring Divine abundance into the world.
An example: Saying a blessing over bread doesn’t change the bread. We know that. It changes us. It gives us a momentary chance to get out of our own heads, to look at the bigger picture. It enables us to tap into a Truth that surpasses facts.
May we be blessed to remember to bless, to remember that we can choose our path – to be a plague, or be a blessing.
This is an abbreviated version of the sermon I gave at my synagogue this Shabbat.