“The Sound of Not Quite Speaking”
Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto
October 9, 2016
© Rev. Mary McKinnon Ganz
Words matter. That’s what one of our presidential candidates said to the other, during the hurricane of words otherwise known as the first debate.
According to the Creation myth of the Jewish tradition, the Universe came into being by the power of words. “Let there be light,” the Creator said, and there was light where before there had been – not darkness, but a unity of dark and light. Words separated light from darkness, land from ocean, day from night.
Words do that. They separate. And they create worlds.
Part of what I love about the Jewish tradition, which is not my own, is just this attention to words. Jewish religious leaders have made a fine art of adding them, elaborating endlessly on the words of the Torah, the holy book which was said to have been delivered to Moses. The tradition of midrash is a wonder of the human religious imagination! — and starting from about the 13th century, Jewish mystics, called Kabbalists, began to work not only on the words of the Torah but on the letters of the words, each of which was thought to have multiple meanings and even luminosity all their own.
The words that were spoken to create the world, the Kabbalists noticed, began with a bet, the second letter of the alphabet, which is, appropriately, the letter that also begins the word baruch, or blessing. Creation, a blessing. But if you are a Jew, according to Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, my teacher at the Graduate Theological Union, you believe that it was when God spoke at Sinai, that God revealed more of Godself than had been revealed before or since.
At Sinai, the first words God spoke were, “I am the Lord thy God; thou shalt have no other gods before me.” The first word of that sentence, “anochi,” I am – beginning with the first letter of the alphabet, “aleph.”
Now, “Aleph” is also the letter that begins God’s not-to-be-spoken mystical name, which God reveals to Moses at the Burning Bush, and which can be translated, “I am becoming what I am becoming.”
We may think of “aleph” as analogous to the “letter a” in our Roman alphabet, but the sound is not the same. The sound of the Hebrew letter “aleph” is ( ). It’s a glottal stop. Rabbi Kushner says this is the sound you make before you make a sound. The sound of not quite speaking.
According to one thread in the midrash, when God made that terribly important appearance at Sinai, God didn’t really say all those commandments that came down on the stone tablets. According to this midrash, all God actually said, was ( ). Included in that sound, or no-sound, spoken by God at Sinai was infinite freedom and possibility: everything the Hebrew people needed to know to find their way out of slavery, out of Egypt, out of the wilderness, and to the promised land.
In searching for meaning behind the words, the Kabbalists began to plumb the shape of the letters themselves. [Hold up the letter]. This is the letter aleph. If you hold it off and squint a little bit, and turn it a quarter turn, does it remind you of anything? Can you see that it is a human face?
Can it be that what God revealed at Sinai was that on every human face is stamped the holy, unsayable Name? Can it be that this is the great secret God was letting the Hebrews in on? — That this is what we need to find our way to freedom: That we set before us the human face, in all its singularity and plurality. The unity of everything, everyone — AND the blessing of multiplicity – all revealed in one another’s faces. In one another’s personhood.
I love this story, and it has led me deeper into study of Jewish traditions. I am especially inspired by the rituals enacted over these Days of Awe, beginning with Rosh Hashanah last week and ending with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, next Tuesday evening and Wednesday.
During these 10 days, according to the tradition, the Book of Life is open, and we have a chance to affect whether our names are written there for another year – or whether they are written in the Book of Death. We can change our fate through our actions, during this time. Thus we are invited to atone for our sins, forgive those who have wronged us, and make amends to those we have wronged.
As I say, this is not my tradition; I understand it as metaphor, and connect it to my experience. Certainly I’ve had the experience that when I reflect on my actions, when I make amends to those I may have disregarded or hurt, when I give up heavy grudges and let go of feeling wronged – I have more lightness, a greater sense of freedom. More life. So I take this time, every year, to reflect on what needs to get cleaned up in my life, what I am ready to let go of, what can be forgiven. And I invite you to do so as well.
Perhaps you are wondering why, in this service that draws so heavily on Jewish sources, we began with the Christian hymn, “Amazing Grace.”
Recently I attended a Symposium featuring Dr. Ysaye Barnwell, the great vocal musician and teacher formerly with “Sweet Honey in the Rock.” The group of seminarians and ministers and musicians and folks who were there fell into a deep conversation about forgiveness. How can we sing the hymn “Amazing Grace,” knowing that it came from the pen of a slave trader? – knowing that even though the slave trader gave up the trade, he didn’t give it up right away, and he never gave up the privilege and wealth it had bought him? This was asked by a Black minister. And the question was seconded by others, Black and white, who spoke of their deep grief and ambivalence when singing this hymn, beloved by many.
Dr. Barnwell said the hymn had reached a new depth of power for her, after watching President Obama lead the congregation in singing it – remember? — during his eulogy for the nine people slain by a white supremacist gunman last year in Charleston, South Carolina, at an historic Black church.
Another minister, Native American, told a story that was new to me: that, during the brutal walk known as the Trail of Tears, the Cherokees had been forced by their captors to sing “Amazing Grace” – but that the Cherokee Nation had reclaimed the hymn, and sing it proudly now in their own language, and call it the Cherokee National Anthem.
Dr. Barnwell said when we sing “Amazing Grace,” we sing it in faith that there is something larger than the evil in which it was created.
This gives me hope. This year, as I reflect on forgiveness, I have been asking myself: In the midst of all that is wrong right now — whether it’s my own petty, individual misdeeds, or my participation in and benefit from systems of injustice — how may I be in touch with the larger reality?
I have found myself drawn back to the beginning, to the story of how Creation was spoken into being. What it means when I speak; what it means when I don’t speak.
There are particular prayers set aside for Rosh Hashanah – the prayer sung by our choir this morning is one — and in articulating these prayers at the beginning of a new year, according to the Chasidic master M.M. Schneerson, we re-enact Creation, speaking the world into being.
It is not much of a leap for me, metaphorically, to notice that everything that I speak, brings the world into being. My world, anyway. It is words I use to know my boundaries, where “I” ends and “not-I” begins. The words I say affect the atmosphere around me – the mood I carry into the world, and the mood of those I meet.
This nation was spoken into being with soaring (though imperfect) words: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. For a couple of centuries, our leaders tried to match them, more or less, with the tone of our discourse. But the nation too many of us speak into being today is a meaner place, and not a place I am happy to live.
This week, we have witnessed a particularly base example of how words speak worlds into being. When a man speaks of assaulting women, and then dismisses it as “locker room talk,” this speaking reinforces a culture where sexual assault is not only permitted but dismissed as unimportant. I know this world; this is the world that I grew up in, and I suspect that most of the women here and many of the men understand just what I am talking about. It is good that this came to light in a videotape, just the way it is good that police killings of unarmed Black men — which we have to assume have happened far more than we know — are coming to light through police body cameras and witnesses’ cellphone videos.
When people speak to diminish and disregard the humanity of others – whether it is through sexism, racism, ableism, or homophobia – they are creating a world in which that disregard is acceptable. And when those who object are derided as “politically correct,” that racist, sexist, ableist, homophobic world gets a little more solid.
But please don’t think it’s just one side — one candidate, one party — that is speaking a meaner world into being. The other day on National Public Radio – anybody here listen to NPR? I thought so; generally there’s a pretty high correlation between NPR listeners and people in Unitarian Universalist churches …. Anyway, a supporter of one of the candidates has been interviewed many times over the course of the election season, and she said you would not believe the hate messages she has received from listeners – NPR listeners like me and like many of you. … Though I may be tempted to ask, “Well, who started it?” – when you are speaking from your life, when you are speaking your world into being, that is a pretty irrelevant question.
My heart breaks as I contemplate the state of the world and of our country heading into the homestretch of this very disturbing political cycle. I haven’t known what to say, what to do, in the face of the harrowing divisions I see in the body politic, between police and citizens, in Syria, in Columbia, in world community, nearly everywhere I look if I am honest.
It is my faith that there is something larger than my heartbreak, something larger than all the systems that oppress.
I don’t always know how to talk about what that is, but I know it when I see it. I see it here, when we greet each other at the beginning of the Sunday service. I see it in your faces – each stamped with the mark of Holy personhood. This is how the world begins – in freedom, in possibility, in our connection, person to person, with one another.
May I be patient in the midst of my broken heartedness. May I be silent when it is mine to be silent. And when it is mine to speak — when my words are necessary in defense of cherished values or of those who have been oppressed — may the words of my mouth open the possibility not only of definition and separateness, but of reconciliation and wholeness.
Above all, may I be kind. Whether anyone else does or not, may I speak with kindness, and know that in doing so, I participate in creating a world where kindness matters.
CHALICE EXINGUISHING WORDS: You are creators of worlds. Your words and your actions matter. Speak into being the world you want – for yourselves, for your children and grandchildren, for seven generations forward. May we be so.
SERMON SOURCES AND INSPIRATIONS
- Arthur Green, “The Aleph-Bet of Creation: Jewish Mysticism for Beginners,” Tikkun Vol. VII, No. 4
- Lawrence Kushner, teacher of Jewish Mysticism at the Graduate Theological Union
- Alan Lew, This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation
- “Words and World,” Based on the Letters of the Rebbe, Rabbi M.M. Schneerson