Sticks, Stones, and Words
Shabbat Drash, August 23, 2013 (17 Elul 5773)
It was a scene that has, in the past couple of years, become far too routine. A man came to the McNair Discovery Learning Center in Atlanta's DeKalb County armed with a semi--automatic rifle and 500 bullets. He came to the school with the intent to emulate the depravity and destruction perpetrated on school children in places like Sandy Hook and Columbine.
But this week’s story was different. This week’s story ended not with mass destruction and grief—but also not with an in-depth, post-mortem obsession with a killer: with his story, his mental health, or his motives. Rather, this week’s story ended with a sigh of relief, and—if not redemption—than a remarkable story of faith and the power of words.
Antoinette Tuff is not an NRA spokeswoman; she is not a gun-control advocate. She is not a pastor, a psychologist, nor a trained hostage negotiator. She is a school clerk, and she is a woman of faith. For 24 minutes, Tuff negotiated between the police and Michael Brandon Hill, diffusing a scenario that far too often ends differently. Petula Dvorak, writing of the scene in the Washington Post, records:
She calmed him. She told him that he wasn’t alone in having troubles. Her husband walked out on her after 33 years, she said, and she has a “multiple-disabled” son. She soothed that man holding an assault rifle by telling him, “We all go through something in life.”
“I’m sitting here with you and talking to you about it,” she told him when he mumbled something about no one wanting to listen to him.
As she persuaded the young man to surrender, she said: “We not going to hate you, baby. It’s a good thing that you’re giving up, so we’re not going to hate you.”
She offered to act as his human shield, to walk outside the school with him so police wouldn’t shoot.
She even told him she loved him, cared about him and was proud of him as he began to stand down.
Clearly, the time for real change on gun control and gun culture in America is past; we are behind in that conversation. Even with her poise, her faith, and even her love, this situation could have ended differently for Antoinette and the students. But the riveting 24 minutes of that tape are a reminder to us, to all of us, that amidst policy conversations and blame games, there is the space—the necessity—for real conversations, for words that can penetrate even the darkest places.
As children growing up, we all learned the words: Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never harm me.
As adults, we look at our scars—internal and external—and wonder if that is actually true. Our physical scars fade, our broken bones mend—but those words—spoken and received—can stay with us. They burrow deep, the take root….and they come to the surface, to help and harm us, when we least expect it. A brushed-off compliment comes to mind when we are facing a task we think perhaps we cannot do. A long-forgotten insult bares its ugly head just when we are already feeling down. While not as tangible as a broken arm, the power of words is undeniable.
With words, God creates the world. With words, God opens up the covenant at Sinai. And in this week’s parasha, words offer us blessing and curse.
As is often the case in Torah, the blessings are given in generalities, succinctly. The curses, on the other hand, are numerous and detailed. They far outnumber the blessings, and they are far more explicit. But, why is it that tradition has us recite these words, the scary curses, sotto voce. Why do we read the blessings in full voice, but keep the curses under our breath? The answers are all superstitious, but in particular strikes me powerfully. It is, the tradition suggests, about making a vision manifest. Life coaches, therapists, and yoga instructors often suggest that setting an intention, vocalizing a vision, living as if something were already true are all paths to making it so. Perhaps, our tradition feels the same way, and if we speak the curses too loudly, they will come to be.
Psychologically, perhaps there is something to be said about hearing these curses deep in the month of Elul, as we reflect on our behavior, and begin to envision the year to come. Perhaps there is something to considering what it is that we want to make manifest, to speak out loud, and what it is that we want to avoid—sotto voce.
And, as the litany of curses drones on and on, I cannot help but flash ahead to Yom Kippur. In the course of 25 hours, as we stand for Vidui, we will confess 44 sins—failures of love, failures of justice, failures of truth. Of those 44, more than half involve what comes out of our mouths—gossip, idle chatter, offensive speech. We are asked to own up to things we wish had not come out of our mouths, the things we said that we regret, the words we wish we could take back. What does it mean to speak these aloud, to make our wrongdoings, or at least our missed marks, manifest—to bring them into the world?
Last year, I spoke on Yom Kippur on the sins of what we don’t say, the times we wish we had spoken up. This week, inspired by Antoinette Tuff, I want to encourage us to focus not only on the times we missed the mark—but also on the times we hit it. Was there a time this year that you were fully present, able to speak words of comfort? Was there a time this year when you were able to look beyond your own fears, your own anxieties—and speak to someone else’s humanity? Was there a time this year when you dug deeply enough to say I love you when it didn’t come easily? If Elul is about looking back and looking ahead, why not make manifest the blessings, knowing that—come Yom Kippur--we have to make the curses manifest as well?
In one of the most heartbreaking moments in the 24 minute tape, you hear Antoinette Tuff talking to the gunman. You cannot hear his words, but you hear her tell him: It sounds like she loves you very much. In that brief moment, in those few words, you can hear a lifetime of the sins of omission and commission that we all fall prey to in our words, or lack thereof. And Ms. Tuff, with no training or preparation, is able to say different words; for whatever the reason, they were the words he needed to hear in that moment. My colleague, Rabbi Michael Bernstein, is a rabbi in the Atlanta area, and he wrote the following: She appealed to the humanity of a person who showed every sign of having lost all traces of it. In doing so, she gave him—and us—a remarkable gift.
God-willing, none of us will have to show the courage and grace of Antoinette Tuff in a terrifying situation. God-willing, each of us will have the courage and grace of Antoinette Tuff as we face our own scary situations. We may not always—or ever—know the right thing to say, but we should not let it stop us from saying at all. But may all of us be blessed with the ability, and the courage and grace, to see the humanity in ourselves and in others, and to speak with and to that humanity. May we always remember the power in our words. Always remember that sticks and stones may break our bones, but words CAN harm us…..and save us.