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The Power of Speech

One of the major themes of parshat Balak (Numbers, Chapters 22-25) is the power of speech. Bilam's ass upsets the natural order and answers his rider back. Bilam goes out on a mission to curse the Israelites and finds himself involuntarily blessing them instead.

Language is one of humankind's defining characteristics. Each human culture, from the most primitive to the most advanced, is built on a rich network of signs and symbols that allow people to communicate, reflect, plan and work together. Language makes thoughts public, and thereby available to scrutiny. According to Vygotsky, it is this function of language that makes possible the higher order thinking that is so characteristic of humans and so notably absent from other species.

The juxtaposition in parshat Balak of a talking ass and a prophet who can't control his own speech seem designed to emphasize the limits of human power over words. These stories seem to say: You're not as different from animals as you might think; sometimes words control you rather than the other way around.

The week of parshat Balak this year was a traumatic one in Israel. It began with the discovery, in shallow graves near Hebron, of the bodies of three Jewish-Israeli teenagers who were kidnapped and murdered three weeks ago on their way home from a hike. This tragedy was compounded with the discovery later the same week of an additional body - this time, of an Arab teenager from East Jerusalem. The Israeli police have yet to conclude their investigation into the motives and circumstances of the latter murder. But current indications suggest that this was a revenge killing by Jewish extremists.

With depressing inevitability, these tragic events have set off another round of escalating violence in our region, from riots in Jerusalem to missiles and bombing raids in the south. Reading the newspapers on days like these is never easy. On Thursday, I found it even harder. A small article, almost a sidebar to the raging violence documented elsewhere, reported comments by Rabbi Noam Perel, the head of World Bnei Akiva, on his personal Facebook page, calling for the Israeli army to undertake reprisal attacks on Palestinians. “An entire nation and thousands of years of history demand revenge,” wrote Perel. In an allusion to the bible’s account of one of King David’s most violent raids, Perel went on to call for the IDF not to stop “at 300 Philistine foreskins … this disgrace will be paid for with the blood of the enemy, not with our tears.”

Bnei Akiva is a religious Zionist youth movement with an impressive history of values education and social activism. In the early nineties, before moving to Israel, I served as national director of the movement in the UK. I was, and remain, appalled by Rabbi Perl's comments. In their violence and irresponsibility, they contradict everything I valued in Bnei Akiva's educational philosophy: leading by example; integrating Jewish values with social responsibility; and engaging creatively and open-mindedly with the challenges of contemporary Israeli life.

I rarely sign petitions. But after reading the article about Rabbi Perel's comments, I signed a petition calling for him to be removed from his position and provided statements for news items on Bnei Akiva members’ outrage.

I don't know Rabbi Perel personally and I have read carefully his apologies for the offense caused by his remarks. His regret is thorough and heartfelt. Sadly, however, incitement to violence is not something that can be simply forgiven and forgotten. Once spoken or written, words are no longer in our control. Like missiles after they have been fired, the eventual impact of calls to violence is unknowable. Words can be regretted, even retracted and deleted, but they can't be unspoken or unwritten.

That is why I believe Rabbi Perel must go. An educational leader has a special responsibility to weigh each and every word with the utmost care. In these dark and troubled times, we cannot count on divine intervention to turn our curses into blessings.

May this shameful episode remind us of the power of words and the responsibilities of leadership. And let us resolve to use our own words to pursue peace, not to sow hatred.

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