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(l-r): Moe Levy, Executive Director, Asper Foundation; Laurel Malkin, President, Jewish Federation of Winnipeg; Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, guest speaker; Abe Anhang, co-chair, Adas Yeshurun-Herzlia distinguished lecture

By BERNIE BELLAN
The second annual Adas Yeshurun-Herzlia distinguished lecture, featuring Rabbi Joseph Telushkin Thursday, May 9, attracted another very large crowd – duplicating last year’s inaugural lecture, which featured novelist Dara Horn.
Over 336 tickets were sold for this year’s lecture. Apparently many of those who attended bought their tickets only in the last week leading up to the event, as ticket sales had been a bit slow until that point. But word must have spread how good a speaker Rabbi Telushkin was, and no one who would have bought a ticket with that in mind would have been disappointed.

 

 

 

As the author of 15 books (including four novels, Rabbi Telushkin also pointed out), and having been described as one of America’s top 50 rabbis, Rabbi Telushkin combines an impressive knowledge of Judaism with practical advice that could be heeded by anyone, regardless of their religious background.
In introducing Rabbi Telushkin to the audience, event co-chair Abe Anhang (the other co-chair was Faith Kaplan) said that Rabbi Telushkin had arrived that day only six hours prior to his talk, which began at 7:00 pm.  Anhang noted that Rabbi Telushkin had been driven from the airport to the Canadian Museum of Human Rights, where he was taken on a personal tour of the museum by Asper Foundation Executive Director Moe Levy.
Anhang went on to explain that Rabbi Telushkin has been working closely with Levy and Gail Asper on plans for the “World’s Jewish Museum”, which is to be built in Tel Aviv. (The last time Rabbi Telushkin was in Winnipeg, according to Anhang, was 15 years ago, which would have been four years prior to the opening of the Human Rights Museum.)
That year Rabbi Telushkin also spoke at the same synagogue. His subject at that time was the “glorification of the human spirit”, Anhang said.
This time Rabbi Telushkin’s subject was to be “Words that hurt; words that heal”, based upon his 1996 best-selling book by the same title, and which was also re-released earlier this year in revised form.

In taking the podium, Rabbi Telushkin himself remarked that he has “very warm associations with Winnipeg”, noting that he has become “very close friends with Moe Levy and Gail Asper, with whom I’m doing work on the Jewish Museum.”
Turning to his subject matter, Rabbi Telushkin alluded to the “significance of words in life, especially Jewish life.”
“There is a good chance the worst pain you’ve ever suffered,” he suggested, “is from words” and for Jews, words can be especially hurtful, used as they often have been in history to “dehumanize Jews.”
Rabbi Telushkin is especially good at combining lessons from Jewish teachings with modern examples. In his book, “Words That Hurt; Words That Heal”, he cited many examples of individuals who had been hurt by words said to them as children. (One story that left a strong impression on me was the one Rabbi Telushkin told about the famous science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, who was belittled by a teacher over a short story Asimov had written when he was 15. Even though Asimov went on to huge success in life, he would remark upon that humiliation toward the end of his life - an indication how deeply the teacher’s remark had made upon him.)

By the same token, during his talk Rabbi Telushkin gave an example of words that healed and left a positive impression throughout a famous individual’s life, when he told a story about famed lawyer Alan Dershowitz.
Apparently Dershowitz wasn’t a very good student when he was younger; he was actually quite a troublemaker. One summer though, when he went to summer camp, he was befriended by a counselor who was about five years older than him.
One day the counselor said to Dershowitz, “You know, you’re really smart.” Those five simple words had a profound effect on Dershowitz, who had never before been told anything like that. They actually were pivotal in convincing him that he had a bright future ahead of him, whereas to that point he had been convinced all that lay ahead of him was working as a salesman in his father’s men’s clothing store.

Turning to words that can hurt, Rabbi Telushkin referred to words that, in and of themselves, might not have a hurtful intent. He cited the story of Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer, who refused to use the term “extermination of the Jews”, in describing what the Nazi goal was when it came to ridding the world of Jews.
“The Nazis used that word (extermination) and it sounded like clearing out rats,” Rabbi Telushkin explained.
Yet, while some words can inspire negativity, even though they might seem relatively benign, other words can have just the opposite effect, according to Rabbi Telushkin. People who understand and use the word “Tsedakah”, for instance, tend do donate more than people who are only familiar with the word “charity”, he said.
 
Rabbi Telushkin asked whether anyone could give a definition of the term, “lashon hara”? Someone said: “gossip”.
Rabbi Telushkin agreed, but noted that “lashon hara” is, “by definition, true”, yet “just because something is true doesn’t mean you have the right to say it.”
But why is gossip so popular, while saying something positive about someone isn’t? he wondered.
Citing another well-known figure, in this case the late novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer (for whom Rabbi Telushkin’s wife worked, he explained), Singer once suggested that “even good people don’t like to read about other good people” – in explaining why novels about good people rarely catch on.
“The truth is: what’s interesting about someone is not so nice,” Rabbi Telushkin observed.
“If you had to speak about someone for 20 minutes” without saying something negative about that person, most of us would be “out after three minutes,” he suggested.

Rabbi Telushkin asked members of the audience to raise their hands if they wished “they had better control over their tempers.”
Noting that hardly anyone raised their hand, Rabbi Telushkin modified his question, this time saying, “Now this time I’m going to get a more honest response: ‘How many people here are sitting next to someone they wish had better control over their tempers?’ “ (I waited for my wife to put up her hand. She didn’t – typical Canadian, reluctant to raise a hand in response to any question put forth by a speaker – which, by the way, was the reaction every time Rabbi Telushkin called for a show of hands.)
“Every year people get divorced who once loved each other, but then, through the misuse of words, grew apart,” Rabbi Telushkin remarked.
“People who know each other intimately can truly hurt one another, but what they feel isn’t expressed at the moment,” he said.
“My advice,” he continued, “is to rethink the expression of your anger to the incident at the moment. “ For example, Rabbi Telushkin suggested, saying “You never think before you act” can be a terribly hurtful remark to make to someone.
Saying something like that to someone may lead them “to forgive, but they’ll never forget,” he observed.
 
“The other thing you have to learn to do is to apologize,” Rabbi Telushkin said.
He told this self-effacing story about himself to illustrate: Many years ago, when his two daughters were four and six, he once took them to a lecture where he asked the members of the audience: “Have you ever grown up in a house with someone who loses their temper?”
His older daughter put up her hand, much to Rabbi Telushkin’s chagrin. Later, after his talk was over, and he had been suitably embarrassed, Rabbi Telushkin asked his daughter why she had put up her hand. She told him that sometimes when he was teaching her to read, he lost his patience with her. Lesson learned!

One other point of self-effacement that Rabbi Telushkin made: He noted that when the first edition of “Words That Hurt; Words That Heal”, first came out in 1996, he had written that “the level of civil discourse cannot get any worse”. Apparently, Rabbi Telushkin was not all that prescient, he admitted – and we needn’t overextend ourselves to understand how wrong he was.

There is another kind of gossip that isn’t predicated on saying something truthful about someone, which Rabbi Telushkin said is known in Hebrew as “motsi shem ra” – “when you say something about someone that is not true”.
In the modern context, Rabbi Telushkin suggested, one of the most grievous examples of that occurs when Israel is accused of “genocide”. “The intention is to dehumanize Israel,” he declared.
The fact that the Arab population of Israel has grown seven times what it was in 1948 is all that anyone needs to know in order to disprove that canard, he said.

“Can we go 24 hours without using words in an incendiary way?” Rabbi Telushkin asked the audience. “Just try it.”
He ended his speech with the following observation: “If you’re not going to be a better person tomorrow than you are today, then what need do you have for tomorrow?”

Following his prepared remarks, Rabbi Telushkin fielded a series of highly intelligent questions from audience members. (In thanking him later, event co-chair Faith Kaplan noted that the questions were as interesting in how they led to very well thought-out answers from Rabbi Telushkin as his actual speech.)
The first question was: “How does someone respond to someone who says something hurtful to you?”
Answer: “Are they intending to be hateful or hurtful? If so, then you have to question your relationship with that person…Not everyone deserves a second chance.”
“But it might be a member of your own family” , who has said something hurtful, Rabbi Telushkin noted. While it is important to mend fences, “still you don’t have to be a masochist,” he suggested.
“My wife says that, even if you choose to forgive someone, you should tell them what they’ve done to hurt you…”

“But what if the damage is irrevocable?” Rabbi Telushkin wondered.
“There are times when you are forbidden to forgive,” he answered, as in the case of school shootings. (And in this respect, Judaism strongly differs from Roman Catholicism, which allows anyone to be forgiven on their deathbed – no matter what the situation.)

Continuing on the theme of forgiveness, however, Rabbi Telushkin drew this brilliant analogy: “Holding on to a grudge is like allowing the person to whom you hold the grudge to be in your mind rent-free.”

Question: “What should we, not as the speaker who says hurtful things, or the person to whom they’re said, but as the bystander, do?”
Answer: “You have to handle it on a case-by-case basis. There are so many variables in ethics you can’t lay down rules – only principles.”

Question: “What makes us speak evil of others?
Answer: “People don’t gossip about people who are on a lower social level… There is a certain satisfaction in seeing the misery of the rich.”
Rabbi Telushkin went on to quote Samuel Johnson: “The vanity of being trusted with a secret is one of the chief motivations to disclose it.”
Sharing a secret makes you “an important person”, Rabbi Telushkin observed. “It makes you a person in the know.”

Question: “Why do women gossip more than men?”
Answer: In high school, “boys generally establish their status by athletic prowess.”
Girls, on the other hand, establish status by being “part of the in group…the easiest way to do that is by putting someone else down.”

And then, Rabbi Telushkin had yet one more pithy saying to take home, this time from New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman: “Pessimists might be right more often than optimists, but only optimists accomplish anything.”

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