“… speaks truth in his heart.” (15:2)
To lie convincingly, most people, unless they suffer from a personality disorder, need to believe the lie. If you fully acknowledge the truth in your heart and mind, it is very difficult to lie. Your body will most likely give you away. Your eyes will shift, your tongue will stutter, or your voice will drop. Your body physically resists telling what it knows to be a lie. It is possible to override your body’s impulse and teach it to lie more effectively, but it is so much easier to teach your yetzer hara (selfish inclination) to tell the truth, inside and out.
“With lips such as ours, who can be our master?” (12:5)
Politicians are great talkers. They have mastered the art of articulating their positions on issues, mustering arguments in favor, and countering arguments opposed to them. Sometimes they undermine opposing arguments by attacking the character or the motivation of their opponent. We ought to follow the example of Hillel, who gave such respect to his opponents’ positions that he would teach them even before he taught his own position on the issue. He demonstrated the ability to listen deeply to others in order to truly understand them, a trait worth emulating.
Do not enter into judgment with Your servant, for before You no creature is in the right. (143:2)
The American political system abhors changing one’s position on issues. They call it “flip-flopping.” Apparently, they believe that from the very first moment that a future politician takes a public stance on an issue, whether that be in an election for high school student council or maybe an op-ed piece published in a college newspaper, that one’s positions should be consistent and unchanging.
Most of us are not so consistent. Over time, we do grow and mature and our positions on issues change. Sometimes they become softer, sometimes they become firmer. Sometimes we learn something new that causes us to reject a position completely and embrace its opposite. Yet at the same time, most of us hang on to and defend whatever it is that we believe at the moment with the strength of a dog with a chew-toy.
It is very frustrating to have a conversation with someone who is so certain of his own set of truths that everything that you say is judged and found wanting. The rest of the Psalm speaks of God’s beneficence, faithfulness, and gracious spirit, but this verse peers into a different Divine facet. It is the experience of being in a relationship in which you can never do anything right, no matter how hard you try.
Reflecting off this verse, I promise not to be stubbornly enslaved to every belief, but rather to take gentler positions and be kind to those who disagree with me. I promise to affirm the inherent value of those in relationship with me and not judge so harshly that they despair of ever meeting my standards. I promise to look to God beneficence, faithfulness and gracious spirit as a model of behavior.
Adonai, set a guard over my mouth, a watch at the door of my lips. (141:3)
Considering all bad habits, the compulsive desire to get in the last word is a tough one to break. It is rooted in a desire to win. The combative spirit bursts forth upon spotting the chance to raise oneself up by correcting, chastising or further clarifying.
Communication ought not be a competitive sport, but even a cursory glance at the comments below published articles often reveals a high level of belligerent language. The character of “Topper” in Dilbert is that guy you avoid speaking to, with his unbelievable ability to turn every statement into a soliloquy about himself.
You say, “I’ve been reading this great book called ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude,” and I’m thinking that most of the misfortune that people experience in their life is connected to their poor choices. What do you think?”
He responds, “Absolutely right, I’ve made great choices and that’s why I just got a promotion, and in my spare time I’ve been writing my own self-help book which will help you get our of the rut you’re in.”
Or the response to “I just got a new dog and I finally trained him to stop peeing in my slippers!” is “Great, my dog barks once when he needs to do #1, twice for #2, and three times when he wants me to change the channel! He hates CNN – much prefers Fox News.”
And then there are the people who can talk in long, multi-page paragraphs without checking to see whether the listener is still listening. But even those of us who want to listen and show sincere interest in the other person find ourselves occasionally responding in ways that are more about our insecurities than about the other person’s needs.
The wise words of the Psalmist remind us that we ought to have a door at our lips that we should regularly close, or a least a filter which regulates how many of our words escape our mouths.
Let slanderers have no place in the land … (140:12)
I write a weekly column for a Michigan-based website and my local newspaper titled “Ethics and Religion Talk.” Each week I publish three or four responses from different religious traditions to reader questions on ethical or religious issues. I enjoy writing the column and many people enjoy reading it, including a group of people hostile to anything religious who read the column “religiously.” Each week they post sarcastic or just plain hostile comments belittling those who take religion seriously. Worse, they post anonymously. My multi-faith panel of clergy work hard to carefully craft their responses. They stand by what they write, in public, under their own names. It is painful for me and for them to be subject to the criticism of people who make no effort to understand why we say what we say or to find anything positive in our words and hide behind pseudonyms, lobbing verbal grenades.
The difference between gossip and slander is that gossip my be true or false, but slander is a false statement about another person. The literal translation of the Hebrew phrase is “a person of the tongue,” but the translations/commentaries I consulted all agree that the intent is a slanderer. The thing about people who slander anonymously is that they don’t have to worry about thinking deeply and being careful with facts so they can dash off quick comments, while those of us who care about accuracy and stand behind our comments publicly spend more time crafting our words. If I controlled the platform, I would not allow anonymous comments (“have no place in the land”), but alas I don’t. So I choose to rise above their slander and hope that the nature of their communication speaks for itself.
Sometimes, like the Psalmist, the best we can do is hope for a better future. In the meantime, all we can do is model excellent behavior and comport ourselves with dignity.