Rosh Hashanah Sermon by Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 3 October 2019

Humbug! This mint-flavoured boiled sweet Dickensian word that’s come to mean “nonsense” has already been apologised for by our Prime Minister. Even “humbug” is incendiary, belittling and certainly lashon hara (speaking evil) when it is used to brush off, deride and deflect from someone, in this case an MP, explaining they have been the targets of death threats due to inflammatory language. Our parliament has shown us this week how laws around lashon harah are just as poignant as always, if not more now.


Our Parliament has shown us the truth in the Jewish idea that derogatory talk harms three people – the person about whom is being spoken in a way that cannot be undone or forgotten; the person who is told the derogatory comments about another and most interestingly, it harms the person speaking – it contaminates all of them and the Talmud teaches that speech isn’t just something temporary, abstract and benign. It’s worse than financial misconduct as the person feels worse when their feelings are hurt and money that is earned dishonestly can be returned whereas emotional hurt cannot be undone by another person.


It’s not just me who’s worried about the power of speech and social media. Judaism holds speech as having a special power. Speech is what makes humans similar to God and different from other animals and it repeatedly states that cruel, inappropriate speech, public shaming of others can lead to bloodshed. Lashon harah – gossip is seen by some rabbis as the same as spying or trading in other people as though they are purely pieces of information or merchandise to be bought and sold.


There’s a new urgency to the mitzvah against lashon harah as the way we communicate has changed radically due to internet communication or social media which is qualitatively different from what is now called “old media”.


On one hand you can exaggerate or even create conflict because of the speed of online communication but social media also has capacity to connect, unite and reconnect people.


Online communication or social media is different from what is now called “old media” (word of mouth, written communication or radio) as it has these different qualities:

1) Persistence – it lasts forever

2) Visibility – the large number of people who can see it

3) Spreadability – the ease in which it can be shared

4) Searchability – the ability to find content.

5) Anonymous – the ability to perform actions without them being traced

6) Clustered – you can form groups only see views of people with whom you agree.


So this Rosh Hashanah, what mitzvot should we apply to our online communication and social media? Even if we don’t use social media, it’s often the centre of conversations and it’s important so we understand what others are doing.


I would suggest three mitzvot for proper online communication that mean that when we get to 5781, next year, we can say the “al chet” for “lashon hara” and know we have done our very best to limit this very human but potentially extremely hurtful sin.


My favourite Jewish value for online communication is summed up by derech eretz – civility – it’s gone out of common use and I want to bring it back for 5780. The literal meaning is “the way of the land” but is about etiquette, how you treat others properly – proper behaviour – opening the door for others, not interrupting, not belittling. In the world of social media this means being very careful how you treat others – using politeness and care even though or especially because it is a far too speedy medium. Bring it back! Treat derech eretz with derech eretz! How you write about someone online, how your respond to something has to be underpinned by derech eretz – especially when human psychology is wired in a way that we respond 7 times more when we feel negative about a comment or a view or a person than if we feel positive.

When you’re annoyed, frustrated or even enraged – hold on! Is this “derech eretz” to respond online where everyone can see this? If it might be – don’t type it on your computer, ipad or telephone. These are tiny weapons of mass destruction dressed up as addictive entertainment and communication devices.


The second mitzvah for avoiding lashon harah on social media is kavod habriyot — honouring creation. You may be much more restrained when someone who you find infuriating is in the same room rather than with what seems like the far removed distance of online communication which seems almost an anonymous way of interacting.


Just ask yourself “would I say this to their face?” If yes, write it on faceboook/twitter but if no, or maybe not – don’t! As the Ethics of our Fathers teaches us Siyag l’chochmah shticka – the protective fence around wisdom is silence.


And finally, one golden Jewish value for 5780 when you’re online (just as when you’re in conversation) – tzniyut – modesty. You might assume modesty, tzniyut, has to do with modest dressing – long sleeves or lack of sexy dressing but it is also about simple showing off. One person’s joy is someone else’s pain – a new grandchild or purchase or vicarious achievements through friends or family.

One fascinating aspect of millennials and people younger than them (now called Generation Z) is that the new currency is not money but experiences. Life and achievement is measured in what experiences people have and how they show these to others.


The Talmud in tractate Sukkah teaches, “What does it mean “To walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8)?…”; If, regarding matters that tend to be conducted in public, when many people participate in funerals and weddings, the Torah says: “Walk humbly”, then in matters that tend to be conducted in private, such as giving charity and studying Torah, all the more so should they be conducted privately.


Why put your amount of a donation on Facebook? Why show off how much an event must have cost on Instagram? It may hurt others and may be lack of tzniyut.


Hold back! Bring back tzniut – tell those who love you but not the whole world where it stays forever, can be searched for by a very wide group (including your future employer), can be shared and spread when you didn’t expect it and, most importantly, may inadvertently hurt others.


Judaism is glorious as it is built to adapt and evolve as we do. Let’s use the best of Judaism to carry out our beautiful prayer, “Elohai, n’tzor l’shoni meira us’fatai midabeir mirmah, v’limkal’lai nafshi tidom, v’nafshi ke-afar lakol tih’yeh.” “Oh God, keep my tongue (or my keyboard) from causing harm and my lips from deception.

So that I will hold my tongue and be humble when people slander me.”


May this be true for me, you, your neighbour, our community and certainly, certainly for our Prime Minister.


Shanah shel derech eretz, kavod habriyot v’tzniut – of good behaviour, honouring each other and modesty.

Shanah tovah u’metukah