D’var Torah: Of sticks and stones . . . and names

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Rabbi Josef Davidson

Rabbi Josef Davidson

“Sticks and stones may break your bones, but names will never harm you.”

How many of us have heard this adage during our formative years? Usually it was the response to a complaint that so-and-so called us a (pejorative) name. It meant that as long as there was no physical injury, the name-calling was to be taken lightly. However, if we are to be honest with ourselves, did this really help assuage the hurt feelings and the other effects of being called a name?

The fact is that labeling someone with a pejorative does hurt. As a second-grader my gym teacher called me and another “husky” kid, “Fatty One and Fatty Two.” Not only did it lower our self-esteem, but it affected the way our fellow students related to us. That I still remember this many decades later is testimony to the fact that names do hurt!

I was drafted into the U. S. Army during the Viet Nam War. During our training, the enemy, the North Viet Namese and the Viet Cong (as well as the people of South Viet Nam) were called “Gooks.” By dehumanizing them, the thinking was that it would be easier to engage them in combat, because they were no longer viewed as human.

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African-Americans have endured pejoratives during the centuries since they were brought to this country as enslaved peoples. The result was that the majority culture considered them as less than human. Even the monumental civil rights legislation of the 1960’s has yet to erase these dehumanizing names from some people’s vocabulary, and certainly this has contributed to the racial injustices that persist in the country.

We Jews, too, have millennia of experience with the effect of name-calling. As early as the Gospels, Jews are called “Children of the Devil.” Throughout the medieval period, Jews in Europe are not considered citizens of the countries in which they resided, not able to own property, not able to join the guilds, and often forced to wear distinguishing articles of clothing. During my own lifetime, I have witnessed that we have eschewed the name “Jew” as if it were, itself, a pejorative, because so often in the majority culture it was preceded by “Dirty.” Only in the last few decades have we taken it back.

In this week’s Torah portion, Toldot, we learn of an instance in which one character is described in a manner that is suggestive of a lower form of life than human. It is found in an episode of the story of Jacob and Esau. Jacob was preparing a lentil stew, when Esau came back empty-handed from a full day of hunting in the fields, tired and famished. Esau even identified his hunger as placing him near the point of death! Rather than offering his brother a bowl of stew to stave off his hunger, Jacob waited for Esau to ask for some. The Torah quotes Esau as having said, “Hal`teni na min ha’adom ha’adom hazeh . . . – Give me some of that red stuff to gulp down . . .” (Genesis 25:30) The verb employed in this text appears only this one time in the entire Tanach (Hebrew Scriptures). In at least one ancient cognate language this verb root means “to stuff cattle with food.” Its very use in the text could lead one to the conclusion that Esau is brutish, even less than human. Indeed, Esau is judged as unworthy of the birthright that he sold for the bowl of stew and unworthy of being the successor to the Covenant of Abraham and Isaac, not only by his mother, Rebecca, but by every descendant of Jacob from that time forward. By the Rabbinic period, by means of some linguistic gymnastics, Esau, the man of the field, will be identified with the wicked Roman Empire, which ultimately destroyed the city of Jerusalem and the Second Temple.

The old adage about sticks and stones and names ultimately is a false one. Naming is a powerful means by which to control others. This is why it was important for the first human being to name all of the other creatures. Names can lift individuals and peoples up, but they can also bring them down. Words matter; names matter. Calling another by a pejorative demeans not only the name-caller but the one that is called by that pejorative. In the rules of debate ad hominem or name-calling arguments are excluded from the contest. Name calling denies the premise on which the Torah and subsequent Scriptures are based: Human beings are created in the Divine Image. As we engage our fellow human beings, it is important to keep this adage in the forefront of our minds and our discourse with and about them.

Rabbi Josef Davidson is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.