The Words of Enemies and the Silence of Friends
By Rabbi David Kay, Congregation Ohev Shalom, Maitland, FL
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
So we are taught when we are children. And there is important and practical wisdom in that. When others speak unkindly to us or about us, we ought not to let those demeaning words define us or tempt us to respond in kind.
And yet, every one of us in this room has felt the sting of harsh, insulting, or deliberately hurtful words. We know that the pain they cause is every bit as tangible, every bit as real as the pain of a physical blow.
In some cases – and especially for the young – the pain that words can inflict is agonizing. For those who are the regular target of teasing and taunting and verbal bullying, the psychological wounds run so deep and take so long to heal – if indeed they ever really do – that sticks and stones and even a broken bone might seem better. At least a physical wound can heal and the discomfort can eventually recede and fade into memory, while regular – perhaps daily – verbal harassment can become a waking nightmare full of relentless fear and pain.
Sticks and stones may break bones – but words can break a spirit.
Yet, this is not the worst of it, my friends. Not the worst by half. Far worse than the words of those who seek to hurt us is when those who are standing with us remain silent. The pain and despair of the child verbally tormented on the playground is multiplied a hundredfold when those who witness it do and say nothing. Far worse than the words of enemies is the silence of friends.
Silence is, of course, valued and praised in every faith tradition. In the Tanakh – the Hebrew Bible – the Psalmist declares: L’kha dumi’ah t’hilah – “For You, God, silence is praise”. In the book of Job, when Job cries out for justification of his suffering and God is manifested in a whirlwind, Job places his hand to his mouth, subsiding into awed silence. Silence in the face of the vastness of the universe, the beauty of the natural world, the awe-inspiring intricacy of life itself; falling silent when our finite intellect is overwhelmed by our attempts to grasp the Infinite – these are acts of humility and gratitude. But silence in the face of injustice, of cruelty, of violence, of inequality, of oppression – this is an act of unrighteousness.
The Talmud, the foundational text of Rabbinic Judaism, declares: sh’tikah k’hoda’ah – “silence is like consent.” And so, when we are silent in the fact of injustice, it is far more than passivity. We are, in fact, complicit in the injustice.
When we witness cruelty and fail to raise our voice in protest, it is far more than callousness. We are, in fact, in league with the perpetrators.
When we know of oppression or inequality or exploitation of the vulnerable, and we speak no word in their support or their defense, it is far more than parochialism. We are, in fact, granting our permission – even our approval.
You see, whatever faith tradition you subscribe to, whatever philosophy or moral system you aspire to, whatever ethical pole you set your personal compass to, there is an obligation to stand up, to speak up, to act up.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, of blessed memory, a personal friend of Dr. King who marched side by side with him from Selma to Montgomery, put it this way: “. . . indifference to evil is worse than evil itself . . . in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”
The recent memory of my own people bears a still-open wound, the result of a horrifying assault which was made possible as much by the silence of friends as the words of enemies. Seventy years ago, the world stood by while the Jews of Europe were systematically rounded up, locked into cholera-laden ghettoes, torn from their homes and families, packed into cattle cars, shot, gassed, and burned alive, their clothing, shoes, personal property, even their gold fillings taken by their murderers. Six million Jews perished in Hitler’s Final Solution – a majority, but still only a part, of the more than 11 million souls of all faiths and backgrounds crushed under the iron wheels of the Nazi death machine.
The world calls it the Holocaust, a word meaning an all-consuming fire. But not everything was consumed. There were those who passed through the flames, who lived to bear witness that if people of faith had truly acted according to the principles of their religions, not only would the Holocaust never have happened, it would have been and would continue to be impossible for such a thing to ever happen. And yet it does.
Every faith tradition, every integral philosophy, every person of good will believes in – more than that, demands – the ultimate value of human life. Every faith tradition, every integral philosophy, every person of good will finds cruelty, brutality, and injustice abhorrent. If we would only act according to what we claim we believe, the world of peace and security we all so dearly and deeply yearn for we be a reality – today!
But that “beloved community” of which Martin Luther King, of blessed memory, dreamed – which he fought for, marched for, and died for – is still just a dream. It is still just a dream not because of the words of enemies, but because of the silence of friends. “In a free society . . . some are guilty, but all are responsible.”
If Jews remain silent in the face of injustice, we have – God forbid! – forgotten the lessons of the Holocaust. If Christians see oppression yet speak no word of protest, they have forgotten the teachings of Jesus. If Muslims do not raise their voices in support and defense of the suffering poor, they have forgotten a fundamental value of the Qur’an. Whatever or faith – or if we have no particular faith – we may not be guilty of perpetrating injustice, oppression, or poverty ourselves, but we are held responsible for perpetuating them.
Dr. King spoke often of the interconnectedness of all people. Biology and theology are of one mind on this point, my friends. We are all literally one human family. We are all made from the same genetic blueprint, we are all descended from the same common ancestors, we even have interchangeable parts!
A kidney from one person can be transplanted to save the life of another – regardless of religion, ethnicity, or national identity – and both donor and recipient can live full and healthy lives. So how can we still perceive another human being as so radically different from ourselves as to justify the belief that they are somehow less worthy of respect and compassion and basic human rights than we are? What a foolish and dangerous fiction that is.
There is no “them” and “us” – there is only “us.”
This is a fundamental truth of human existence, and we ignore it at our peril. We are not separate entities, each of us functioning in his or her own private universe. We are the limbs and organs, the bones and sinew of a single organism. It is impossible to injure, ignore, or abuse one part without damaging the whole.
And so, the words of enemies harm the speaker as much as they hurt the one being spoken to. And the silence of friends diminishes the one who fails to speak as much as it betrays the one who is not spoken for.
In the fight for justice, there are no bystanders. In the vote for equality, there are no abstentions. In the great march to freedom, there are no exemptions. We’re all in, every one of us.
On an early April evening in 1968, on a motel balcony in Memphis, TN, a single shot from a high-powered rifle silenced the mortal voice of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
But we know that you can kill the dreamer, but you can’t kill the dream. And so – heart to heart, hand in hand, and shoulder to shoulder – we cannot, we must not, we will not give up until that still-living dream becomes a living reality.
“In the end,” Dr. King said, “we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” And so, for his sake and for our own, for the sake of friends and enemies, for the sake of our own children and all future generations, let us all pledge, here and now, to stand up and speak up.
Say it with me now: “Stand up! Speak up!”
“Stand up! Speak up!”
“Stand up! Speak up!”
And “Let justice roll down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream!”
© 2014, David E. Kay. All rights reserved.
David Kay, associate rabbi of Congregation Ohev Shalom in Maitland, FL, is a member of the Executive Committee of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida, representing the Greater Orlando Board of Rabbis. He also serves as the liaison between the Interfaith Council and the Mayor of Orlando’s Martin Luther King Jr Commission.