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Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5776/2015 by Rabbi Dev Noily

RabbiDev-currentStanding Together, Right Smack in the Middle of the Torah


Speech as Spiritual Practice

When my partner Sara and I were younger and first together, probably in our late 20s, around “Glitter”[1] age, we used to go to Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco on Friday nights. There were lots of interesting people, and we would gossip a bit about them as we sat in services. When we got home, we would gossip some more.  It wasn’t mean or disrespectful.  It was just gossip.  And it was delicious.

One Shabbat Sara pointed out a line in the siddur, at the end of the Amidah, a quote from Psalm 34:

G-d, guard my tongue from speaking guile and my lips from evil….

Sara loved the line.  (Especially the word “guile.”)  And she loved the idea of committing not to gossip, for starters, just on Shabbat. We agreed to do it.  I couldn’t believe how hard it was.  It was so hard we had to cut back to just on Friday night.  And then we had to cut back to just while we were at shul.  I had no idea how much I was talking about people.

And I had no idea how much I enjoyed it.

One of my teachers, Rabbi Shelia Weinberg wrote, “It’s useful for people to identify the desire and enjoyment element in rechilut, in gossip.  It’s hard to give up something without admitting that it has a lot to offer.  Then one needs to identify the actual and potential pain and harm caused in order to make it worth foregoing the pleasure.”[2]

The Chofetz Chaim, modern Judaism’s greatest teacher on right speech, says that the way we speak is a habit, and habits can be hard to break.  But the good news is that if we can change our habits, the new and better habits are also hard to break![3]

Seth Kreimer, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania (and the father of our member Frances Kreimer!) writes, “(S)pech generates understandings, traits of character, and habits of thought that carry through to other actions.  It is well to avoid uncharitable judgment [of ourselves and others] or hateful speech, and to seek opportunities to celebrate virtue [in ourselves and in others], for example, even in one’s diary.  God created the world by speaking; we create our inner worlds in the same fashion.”[4]

It’s good to avoid harsh speech and to lift up the good we see in others and in ourselves even in our diary! 

This is such an important truth about mindful speech:  Mindful speech is something we need to practice even when no one else hears or sees our words.  It’s about us.

It’s about who we want to be, and about how the words and tone we use shape who we are and shape how we live.

What an amazing idea:  we can actually create ourselves through our own speech.

And this is what I want to offer us tonight: An invitation to explore the power of our speech, the power of our words, to create our world.

The Jewish name for practicing mindful speech is shmirat Halashon, literally watching over the tongue.

Many of us are mindful of our speech and careful with our words, independent of Jewish teachings on the subject.  We’re lucky to live in place and a time where mindfulness practice and models like nonviolent communication are part of the fabric of our regional culture.

Many of us come by our awareness of the power of speech through our daily lives and work.  As educators, therapists, social workers, writers, healers, artists, parents and social change agents, to name just a few, we think carefully about our words, about how they impact others, and about how they define who we are.

So it may be surprising to discover that Jewish traditions include a vast literature and set of practices, highly systematic and intricately nuanced, to help guide us as we try to master this extraordinarily volatile and awesome superpower that is our tongue.

Tochecha:  The middle of the Holiness Code

Jewish teaching on mindful speech includes a plethora of terms to describe different kinds of speech.  Each term, each kind of speech, has its own set of practices and intentions, considerations and exceptions.

I want to focus tonight on just one of these many kinds of speech.   It’s called tochecha.

When Kehilla’s spiritual leadership team met a few months ago to discuss how we would address this year’s theme, and I said that I wanted to talk about tochecha, one person shrunk back as if to avoid a blow to his face – his shoulders up to his ears, body leaning back, hands up as if to guard his face.

It was Howard Hamburger.  Howard said I could share that with you.

And I knew exactly what Howard meant.

Tochecha is, I think, the most complicated and difficult practice of shmirat Ha lashon.

Tochecha is the practice of correction, or critique.  Sometimes it’s translated as reproof or rebuke.

But before I talk more about what tochecha is, I want to tell you where it comes from.

In the five books of the Torah, the third book, the middle book, is the book of Vayikra, the book of Leviticus.  I’m not going to make any apologies for the book of Leviticus.  I love this book.  Another time, we can talk about the hard parts.

And in the middle of the book of Leviticus – not the exact middle, but in the middle part, in chapter 19 – there is an extraordinary piece of Torah that’s called the Holiness Code.

The Holiness Code is in the middle of the middle of the Torah. It is the center, the spine, if you will, of the Torah.

I want to read you three verses from the Holiness Code:  one from the beginning, one from the very middle, and one from the end of Leviticus 19:

From the beginning:

You shall be holy, for I, YHVH, your G-d, am holy.

From the middle:

Love your neighbor as yourself.

From the end:

When a stranger lives with you in your land, you shall not wrong them.

The stranger who lives with you shall be to you like one of your citizens.

You shall love them as yourself, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.


This is the center, the essence, of the Torah, as Hillel the Elder taught 2,000 years ago:  Love your neighbor as yourself. 

The Holiness Code starts by saying that we are in relationship with the Source of Holiness and that we are called into partnership with G-d to co-create ourselves and to co-create our world.

The Code continues with practices that protect the vulnerable and the less powerful in society from abuse and neglect by people who have more wealth and power.  (That’s the part we didn’t read).

And the Holiness Code culminates with the commandment to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

By then end of the code, this requirement of love, compassion and justice is extended beyond the people who are familiar to us, to those whom we don’t know – to people who are different from us, people who are strangers to us.

Embedded in this handbook for creating a just and holy society, in verse 17, the verse just before “love your neighbor,” we find tochecha:

Do not hate your sibling in your heart;

You shall surely offer tochecha to your neighbor, so that you do not bear chet, transgression, on account of your neighbor.

So what is tochecha?  It’s telling someone else that what they’re doing is out of alignment with the Holiness Code.

Dangers of Tochecha

So right away, we can see how problematic tochecha can be, and we can appreciate Howard’s reaction.  If you grew up, like I did, in a certain kind of Jewish familial and cultural sea, maybe you experienced a heavy dose of sharply-barbed criticism and judgment.  Maybe eventually you learned to give as good as you got, sparring and landing jabs with the best of them.

Rabbi Shelia Wienberg says, “The problem is, we’ve all been wounded by tochecha.   And the wounds are not done, they are not yet healed.”[5]

Tochecha can be a dangerous and delicate practice.  It can do great harm if it’s not done mindfully.  We can get the wrong idea that we should be watching what other people do and policing them to make sure they do things “right.”

Receiving tochecha can open old wounds and make us feel like we’re being attacked.  We may want to run away, or to fight, or to curl up and disappear. So why go there?  Why do I want to walk into this minefield on purpose?  And why do I want to invite you all to come in with me?

Here’s why.

Gifts of Tochecha: 1.  Healing and Growth

For me, learning how to give and receive tochecha is a path of healing and redemption from a history that includes a lot of hurtful criticism.  It’s a practice that can help us to grow and deepen our relationships in healthy ways.  It’s a practice that can lay a strong foundation for a spiritual community.

I remember the first time I became aware of receiving tochecha as a gift.  When I was applying for rabbinical school I worked with a Hebrew tutor to help prepare me for the Hebrew entrance exam. We spent a few months meeting weekly.  I took the exam, and I passed it.  A couple of years later I ran into my teacher at the theater.  I was excited to see her, and always a little intimidated by her, too.  I wasn’t sure if she would remember me.  I went to say hello, and right away she said, “You owe me an apology.”  I had no idea what she was talking about.  I must have looked like a deer in the headlights.  So she went on to say, “You never told me what happened.  You never let me know if you passed the test.”

In the moment, it didn’t feel so great.  But it got deep inside me, and I kept thinking about it.   What I hadn’t understood, and what my teacher made me see, was that our work together mattered to her.  And because I hadn’t understood that I mattered to her, I also treated her as if she didn’t matter to me.  My heart opened up, and I started to think differently.

Years later, when I was finishing rabbinical school, I thought of my Hebrew teacher again.  And I wanted to let her know what happened.  And then I thought of everyone else who had helped me along this path.  I made as comprehensive a list as I could of all the people who had contributed to my becoming a rabbi.  I sent each person a little packet of seeds, in gratitude for the seeds they had planted in me, and I let them know what happened.

That one piece of tochecha, of truthful, unadorned feedback, shifted my trajectory, and helped me to be more mindful of what I do, of how I impact the people around me, and how they impact me.  That one, short exchange—not more than half a minute—made a real change in my life.

As I’ve felt the benefits of receiving tochecha, I’ve pushed myself to become more comfortable with offering it, too.

I took a class in rabbinical school about Islam.  Part of the model of the class was that each of us would be paired with a Muslim graduate student, with whom we would learn and collaborate.  Before we met our Muslim partners, the class met and discussed how we might initiate our relationships – what would be good to talk about on a “first date,” as it were, and what might best be avoided and saved for later, once we had built more of a relationship.

One of my classmates, who was queer, asked about coming out.  Another classmate, I’ll call him Joe, who was straight, responded that he thought it was best to wait to come out, and that it would be better to start by sharing things we had in common and that would be non-controversial. I felt really hurt by Joe’s comment, and my hurt quickly turned to anger.  Hiding both my hurt and my anger, I just said that it wasn’t an option for me not to come out.

I went home that night with the exchange still rattling around in me, lighting up my anger like bumpers on a pinball machine.  I loved and respected Joe.  He had been my hevruta, my study partner, and I’d learned so much from him and with him.  I knew that in his heart, he was a real ally.  I thought he would want to understand why and how he’d hurt me.  And I didn’t want to hold onto this hurt and let it become an irritant in my relationship Joe, like a grain of sand in an oyster.

I called Joe in the morning.  He was happy to hear from me.  He’d been thinking about it the night before, too. I told him about what it had been like for me, and he asked me good questions that helped him to understand my experience.  He thought about how it would have been for him if he’d been asked not to talk about his wife and new baby, and he explored his blindness to queer people’s experience as he was focused on creating hospitality for our Muslim partners.

I felt like I had honored my relationship with Joe, and shown him more respect by offering the tochecha. Joe got to explore the edges of his capacity as an ally. I learned from Joe’s openness and curiosity, and his bravery in looking at himself.  I still draw on that experience as I try to become a better ally to others. We both felt closer to each other, our friendship got a little more real.

Rabbi Sheila Weinberg again:  “Distance arises from avoidance; closeness arises from addressing what is hard, with love.”[6]

Gifts of Tochecha: 2.  Rooted in Love, for Self & Other

So how do we practice tochecha mindfully, so that we can help each other to grow and deepen our relationships?  How do we practice tochecha without inviting in all of the damage and hurt that can come from unskillful critique and correction?

Our tradition guides us. First, we remember the Holiness Code, and look again at the placement of this commandment in our sacred text. Where is the instruction to do tochecha?  It’s right smack in the center of the center of the Torah.  It is embedded in the middle of the Holiness Code.  It is immediately preceded by the words, “Do not hate your neighbor in your heart.” And it is followed by the words, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Tochecha is about love – It helps us to practice loving ourselves, and to practice how we love each other well.

Rabbi Burt Jacobson introduced me to the Ba’al Shem Tov’s teaching about tochecha.  The Ba’al Shem Tov said, in his commentary on the Holiness Code:

When one offers tochecha, it’s necessary that they love the person to whom they are offering it, and that they correct them from the side of love – like a parent who loves their child.

The Ba’al Shem Tov quotes a verse from the book of Proverbs:

My child, do not reject the teaching when G-d corrects your path; and don’t feel dread at G-d’s tochecha.  Because G-d offers tochecha to the one that G-d loves, just like a parent to a cherished child.[7]

Tochecha has Three Steps

The practice of tochecha really takes three steps:

First, we notice that someone else is doing something that we feel strongly is in need of correction.

Second, we explore our own reaction, in order to check whether our desire to correct them is really rooted in our love and concern for the other person.  This is an opportunity to practice loving ourselves.  We inquire of ourselves, and try to meet what we see with compassion.

If the critique is rooted in love, and only if it is, then the Third step is to share the information in a way that the person is most likely to be able to receive it.  This is an opportunity to practice loving our neighbor.  It can take a lot of time and attention to try to understand how best to deliver tochecha.

A lot of the inner work, the work of spiritual practice, happens in the second step:

We inquire of ourselves, we check in with our heart.  What am I feeling for this person?  What alarms inside me are being set off by them?

If we examine our impulse to offer critique, and we find that a part of us wants to cut the other person down, to diminish them, to feel like we’re better than them, then the critique is not tochecha. If there’s a part of us that feels puffed up, or is getting a little ego boost or a tinge of a competitive edge, the critique is not tochecha. If there’s a part of us that feels like we’re off the hook, or is relieved that we’re not vulnerable because the light is shining on someone else’s shortcoming, the critique is not tochecha.

If we learn that the impulse to critique isn’t coming from a place of love and genuine concern for the other person, then we don’t offer the critique.  But we do receive the extraordinary gift of looking deeply into ourselves, and learning something about what lies underneath that impulse to correct.  Now we can practice love for ourselves, looking with compassion at the anger or the hurt that we’re holding inside.

Tending to that wound, or just noticing it with compassion, may be all we need.  Or noticing our own anger or hurt may clear a path for us, so that we can connect with the love we feel for the other person, and to continue with the process of tochecha.

One of the most powerful stories of tochecha that I know comes from the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hahn.   Right now, he is recuperating from a stroke at UCSF.  What a gift to be able to bring his teaching into our celebration, and to offer our blessings for healing to him.

Thich Nhat Hahn wrote:

During the war in Vietnam, one of my closest students, Sister Chan Khong, who was also a professor at a university in Saigon, wrote a petition for peace.  She persuaded seventy of her fellow teachers to sign it.  (Soon)…the local authorities made a public broadcast calling all the professors who had signed the petition to come to the Ministry of Education to sign a statement recanting their support for the peace petition.  All of the professors except Sister Chan Khong complied.

The Sister was called in to speak with the minister himself, who said that if she did not withdraw her statement for peace, she would lose her position at the university and possibly be put in jail.  Using her mindfulness training, Sister Chan Khong calmed her emotions and declared that she was determined to bear all responsibility for her act of initiating the petition.  Then, she said, “Mr. Minister, as a teacher I believe the most important thing we can do during this time of killing and confusion is to speak out with courage, understanding and love.  That is a precious gift that we can give to our students.  That is what I did.  You, the Minister of Education, were a teacher, too, before having a high position in the government.  You are like a big brother to us younger teachers.”

When he heard this, the minister’s heart softened.  He understood and apologized and did not take any more action against Sister Chan Khong.[8]

Sometimes an act of deep personal practice can even change the hearts of those in power, opening up new pathways to justice.

Tochecha as an Interdependent Spiritual Practice

When we offer tochecha, we’re saying to someone we care about:

“I see that your actions may be out of alignment with your intentions.  I would like to tell you what I’m seeing.”

Tochecha calls us to learn about ourselves, and to offer ourselves in service to each other.  It’s about helping each other to see what we can’t see for ourselves, but what we want to see, so that we can come into better alignment with our intentions.

Tochecha is an interdependent spiritual practice.  It allows us to inter-grow with the people around us.

As we study the practice of tochecha, and the other practices of shmirat ha lashon together, we build our capacity as a community to align ourselves with our communal aspirations.  We build our communal tools and a common language so that we can support each other’s practice.  When we practice together, we can elevate each other to places we would never be able to reach if we were practicing on our own.

So that if I say to you, “I have some tochecha to offer you.  Would you like to hear it?” you can trust that I’ve done my best to reflect, and to check that my intention is to offer something of benefit to you, and that I’ve inquired with myself to see that I’m coming from a place of love.

If you say to me, “I have some tochecha to offer you” I know that you’ve thought about it, and that you’re coming from a place of love.

I can open my heart, opening my arms wide and exposing myself to receive your words, both of us standing together right smack in the middle of the Torah, right in the center of the Holiness Code.

Let us build this practice together, as individuals, and as a community.

Let us experiment together with this interdependent spiritual practice, with this way of inter-growing with each other.

Let it be that in time, when we hear the word tochecha, our bodies don’t cringe, responding as if someone is about to strike us, but instead, open up, as if someone is about to embrace us.

Let us stand together, right smack in the middle of the Torah.


[1] Glitter Kehilla is a community of people in their 20’s and 30’s, of all genders and sexualities, creating meaningful Jewish rituals; celebrating holidays, learning together, making art, and being fabulous.

[2] Rabbi Sheila Weinberg, in David A. Teutsch, A Guide to Jewish Practice, Volume 1: Everyday Living.  Wyncote, PA: Reconstructionist Press, 2011.  p. 135 note.

[3] Chofetz Chaim, A Lesson A Day.  R. Shimon Finkelman & R. Yitzhak Berkowitz, Eds.  New York: Mesorah Publications, 1995.  p. 63.

[4] Seth Kreimer, in Teutsch, p. 103 note. Emphasis added.

[5] Skype conversation with Rabbi Sheila Weinberg, September 10, 2015.

[6] Skype conversation, September 10, 2015.

[7] Rabbi Shimon Menachem Mendel Wodnik and Natan Nata Dunner, Sefer Ba’al Shem Tov.  Compiled in 1938, published in Hebrew in Lodz, Poland.  A collection of the teachings of the Ba’al Shem Tov, organized according to the weekly Torah portion, with commentary (Mekor Mayim Chayim).

[8] Thich Nhat Hahn, Creating True Peace: Ending Violence in Yourself, Your Family, Your Community, and the World © 2003 Free Press.


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