Word Lessons

There is seldom an event that takes place in this world from which we cannot, with the right amount of effort, learn a lesson. And while we can never know the real reason Hakadosh Baruch Hu makes something happen, we are still tasked with learning the lessons the occurrence came to teach us, to the extent that we can.

The lessons, it’s important to point out, exist entirely independent of the reasons.

Last week’s Republican National Convention was one of those times. While not quite rising to the level of a natural disaster (although it came pretty close), there were quite a few occurrences which were ponderable enough that they were teachable moments.

Let us leave aside all talk of the nominee Donald Trump, and the lessons that can be learned from how the party of Lincoln cheered the nomination of a man who stands in direct opposition to Lincoln’s legacy. There are also lessons to be learned from the debacle that was the floor fight over the “rules package” when the Republican “establishment” conspired with the Trump campaign to steamroll the concerns of conservative stalwarts like Utah’s Senator Mike Lee.

But there was another part of the convention that added to its bizarreness, and it was sort of a recurring theme that continued throughout the week.

On the first night, Melania Trump, the candidate’s wife, spoke, and delivered an address that most thought was uplifting and humanizing of the nominee. It was later discovered that portions were lifted almost directly from the 2008 DNC speech of Michelle Obama. (Later in the week, a speechwriter apologized for the “unintentional” plagiarism.)

On the second night, Donald Trump Jr. spoke, and his speech had some anti-Trump Republicans so impressed, some joked “we nominated the wrong Trump.” Others then pointed out that there were metaphors used in the speech which were directly copied from an article written by F. H. Buckley. (Buckley then came out and said that he was a writer of the younger Trump’s speech.)

On the third night, Ted Cruz spoke, and engendered controversy by refusing to include an endorsement of Trump in his speech, instead urging conservatives to “vote your conscience.” He told the Texas delegation that he couldn’t bring himself to endorse because of the disgusting attacks Trump leveled against his father and wife during the primary. (For most Trump supporters, this was apparently not a good enough reason.)

And on the fourth night, Trump delivered a speech using a teleprompter, which was strong on content, but sounded nothing like the real Donald Trump we came to know during the primaries except for his continual insistence that the listener “believe me, believe me.”

What did all these have in common? Besides controversy and breathless media coverage, there was another, less-talked-about reality that was exposed, but totally ignored.

Apparently there is no longer any expectation for people to communicate their own thoughts. Speechwriting has become less about helping speakers better express their own ideas and more about getting the writer’s own thoughts out into the world and using the speaker as an amplification device toward that end.

Not only that, but in the case of the Cruz speech, the portion of the crowd which booed him for declining to endorse was booing him because he wouldn’t say what they wanted to hear — not lending any weight to, or caring at all about, his thoughts and feelings on that issue.

All they want is for people to say the words they want to hear. Like parrots.

There are similarities which can be drawn between this and tefillah. While the words we use when we daven are not our own, they are not just meant to be recited. The Kuzari (3:5) says that when one davens, “lo yevateh b’tfilaso al derech haminhag v’hateva —he should not articulate his tefillah in the way of custom and nature, k’mo hazarzir v’hapapagai — like a raven or a parrot.” Rather, he says, each word should be spoken with thought, and with understanding as to what exactly is being said. It isn’t about saying words; it’s about using those words to properly express out gratefulness to Hakadosh Baruch Hu.

The reason Chazal instituted brachos on everything, explains Der Alter fun Kelm (Chochmah u’Mussar, vol. 2, maamar 11), is “l’hisragel l’hakir tovaso shel Hakadosh Baruch Hu — to get used to recognizing the goodness of Hakadosh Baruch Hu.” That is only possible, he explains, if one puts thought to the words being said; the words on their own have no value.

It is only if one understands what one is saying that the words can have an effect on the speaker. That is the point of praising Hashem using the words Chazal gave us — not that they should serve as, l’havdil, speechwriters who know what our “audience” wants to hear, but so that we should be able to reach the point where we truly understand and mean every word we say.