Taming the Tongue

by Lois Tverberg

“No man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” (James 3:8)

Gossip is a sin of which we all are guilty, and yet it has probably caused us all suffering too. We all are wounded by this habit that seems so acceptable in our culture today. Careers are ended, marriages disrupted, friendships ruined.

How many of us wish we could erase the hard feelings we have caused, and heal our relationships from its affects? Wouldn’t it be nice to feel we could trust everyone when we left the room? The Bible has much to say about it, and rabbinic thinkers have some excellent wisdom about how to purify our speech. We can even find parallels in Jewish ideas to the teachings of Jesus and the rest of the New Testament.

Shmirat HaLashon – Guarding the Tongue

We all know that by being kind in our speech we can have deeper friendships and closer families. The scriptures say that it is the key to a good, long life:

Whoever of you loves life and desires to see many good days, guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceitfully. (Psalm 34:12-13 & 1 Peter 3:10)

In contrast, the potential for harm from our tongues is great:

Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. (James 3:5-6)

Our speech has the potential of great good or great evil. This biblical idea of the need to “guard our tongues” has been a part of a movement among Orthodox Jews in the past century. They have a strong emphasis on observing the rules of Shmirat Halashon (SHMEER-aht hah-la-SHON) – guarding the tongue.

In the past few years in Jerusalem, conventions have been held with seminars on how to have kind speech. Over ten thousand people have attended each year, and many clubs have formed for those wanting to reinforce this habit among themselves. Imagine living in a place where there was no gossip, no backbiting and no slander! They fail too, of course, but it is not overlooked or encouraged, as in some of our circles. Imagine what would happen if the Christian community did that!

We can learn much from the ideas that have come from the Jewish community.

Lashon Hara – The Evil Tongue

The Hebrew term that is used for gossip is lashon hara (la-SHON hah-RAH). It means literally, “the evil tongue.” Jews define it as defaming a person in the eyes of others by revealing details about them that put them in a negative light. Lashon hara is different from slander, which is telling lies about others. While everyone recognizes that slander is wrong, fewer will say that it is also wrong to speak negative truth about others.

Lashon hara is telling your co-workers all about how the boss messed up his presentation, or pointing out to your husband how poorly the worship leader sings. This habit is what tears down friendships, demeans others, and undermines trust. There are, of course, a few times when a person needs to relay damaging information, but outside of that, this kind of negativity is frowned upon in the Jewish community.

Many rabbinic stories focus on the damage done through lashon hara. One story is told about a man who gossiped about a rabbi, causing much damage to his reputation. The man repented and came to the rabbi to ask for forgiveness. The rabbi told him to take a pillow and open it and cast it to the wind. When he had done this, he asked him to now go gather all the feathers back into the pillow again. The man said, “But that is impossible!” and the rabbi replied that, in the same way, it was impossible to repair all the damage that his words had done.

The rabbis point out that other actions close to Lashon Hara should be avoided as well. For instance, to read a newspaper editorial article that you don’t like and then show it to someone just so they will scoff at it is called the “Dust of Lashon Hara.”

It also includes sarcastic comments about another person, like, “She is such a genius, isn’t she?” or innuendos like, “Don’t mention so-and-so: I wouldn’t want to say what I know about her.” Even to laugh and sneer when someone else gossips qualifies, because it communicates your negative feelings. It truly is a difficult task to avoid damaging others through subtle comments and even body language. As James says,

We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check. (James 3:2)

We do many other things with our speech that are hurtful, which are discussed biblically and rabbinically. 

Motze Shem Ra – “to spread a bad name” 

This means to slander another by spreading lies about them. Interestingly, this Hebraic idiom is behind the Greek text of Luke in chapter 6:22: “Blessed are you when men hate you, and when they exclude you and revile you, and cast out your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man.” Even Jesus used the idioms that are still used for evil speech. Jesus is saying that people will invent lies about his followers, but that he will bless them because of the hurt it causes them.

The rabbis considered slander on par with murder, because it destroys the victim’s reputation in the eyes of others. They point out that slander is more similar to murder than robbery, because while a robber can repent and give back all of what he has stolen, a murderer can never undo the damage he has done.

Note: This technique of comparing a lesser sin (slander) to a greater sin (murder) is reminiscent of Jesus’ rabbinic teaching style. Jesus says that anger is on par with murder, and that lusting in the heart is equivalent to adultery (Matt 5:22 & 28). It is a way to point out the serious potential of even small sins. We can see that Jesus is using a technique that was part of his Jewish culture.

Rechilut – tale-bearing

Rechilut is repeating rumors, especially to tell the object of a rumor what others have been saying about them. Leviticus 19:16 says that we should not go about as a “tale-bearer.” We are supposed to be peacemakers, and telling the object of a rumor what is being said is sure to cause anger and hatred between people. We may feel that a person has a right to know what others are saying, but telling them is usually going to cause more damage.

G’neivat da’at – “stealing another’s knowledge”

This means to deceive someone about your intentions. An example is to go out for supper with a friend and offer to pay, knowing that they won’t accept. Or to say you will come to a party knowing that you probably won’t go.

These are forms of deception and verbal manipulation, that are part of the commandment to not lie. How many times a day do our words not match our intentions? We may not give a second thought about all the little ways we are deceptive, that we should rethink if we want to be people of integrity.

Healing the Tongue

How do we heal our speech so that our relationships can be deeper and more fulfilling? Jesus says, “Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). He diagnoses the problem as one of the heart.

One major culprit behind gossip is our desire to judge others negatively, to see their actions in the worst light possible. If a friend doesn’t invite you to a party, was it an oversight, or was there malicious intent? A person who assumes the worst will be angry and want to report the slight to everyone, but a person who assumes the best will not be bothered. Our whole attitude toward others will change when we try always to give others the benefit of the doubt.1

Another major reason for gossip and unkind speech is our desire to elevate ourselves by tearing others down. It may work temporarily, but over time it demeans us in the eyes of others.

Paul has a solution to this problem:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Phil. 2:3-4)

If we genuinely care as much about others as ourselves, we will try to protect their reputations as much as we do our own.

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A major source for this essay is Words that Hurt, Words that Heal, an excellent book on the subject by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin (c) 1996, William Morrow & Co, ISBN 0-688-16350-5.

See also “The Power of Positive Speaking,” an article by Rabbi Malka Drucker.

1 See the En-Gedi article, “Living out Jesus’ Words on Judging.”

Photos: NaveenNkadalaveni [CC BY-SA 4.0], Eugene de Blaas [Public domain], Bobbie Johnson [CC BY-SA 2.0]

Acts of Loving Kindness at Christmas

by Lois Tverberg

Many of us struggle with Christmas. It doesn’t really feel right to hunt for yet another expensive toy to give to already spoiled kids (or adults) on our list. Some have decided not to celebrate the holiday at all, because of the non-biblical traditions that are a part of it. Yet God redeemed us Gentiles from our pagan roots, and his gracious policy over the ages has been to transform rather than to cast aside.1 Instead of throwing out Christmas, perhaps we should ask how we can make our celebrations of the coming of our Messiah truly reflective of his love.

How can we bring more glory to Messiah Jesus at this time of year? Jesus’ Jewish culture asked a related question from the following verse:

The LORD is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation. He is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him. (Exodus 15:2)

From this line, rabbinic thinkers saw the words “I will exalt him,” and asked the question, “How can mere mortals hope to exalt God, the Creator of the entire universe?” In the same way we could ask, how can we bring more glory to someone as infinitely wonderful as God’s own son, the Christ?

Beautifying His Commands

The rabbis had a wonderful answer. They said humans can bring more glory to God, who had all the glory in the heavens, by doing his will on earth in the absolute best and beautiful way possible. They called this hiddur mitzvah, meaning to beautify God’s commands. In the same way, we can do what Jesus commands in the absolute best way possible.

Christians may be surprised that the word mitzvah, meaning “command” or “commandment,” is positive rather than negative in Jewish culture. The word is found in many verses, like the following: “Keep my commands (mitzvot, pl.) and follow them. I am the LORD” (Lev. 22:31).

We tend to assume it refers to burdensome regulations, but the usual Jewish usage of mitzvah is that it is an opportunity to do something good God told you to do. People say things like, “I had a chance to do a mitzvah today when the elderly woman asked for my help.” The word is always used in a positive way, suggesting that doing what God has asked is a joy and a spiritual opportunity, not a burden.2

The idea of hiddur mitzvah (beautifying the command) goes even beyond this — that if God tells us to do something, we shouldn’t just do the minimum, but to perform it in the best way possible, sparing no expense or trouble. When one poor Jewish man was asked why he spent $50 for a citron, a lemon-like fruit required for the Feast of Sukkot, he replied, “Why would we worship God with anything less than the very best?” Using our resources sacrificially to do God’s will is a way of showing great love for God.

We can also see Jesus describing this behavior of hiddur mitzvah, going far beyond the minimum, in his story about the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan man obeyed God’s command to love his neighbor by personally caring for the wounded traveler, carrying him to the inn on his own donkey, and investing a large sum of his own money to care for him. As a Samaritan in Israel he even risked his own life, because as an enemy of the Jews, he could have been accused of being the attacker (Luke 10:33-35).

Good Works?

Christians from some traditions may worry about doing “works” — good things for others — thinking that it is a way of denying that we are saved by grace. It’s very important to remember that we are redeemed by faith in Christ, not because we’ve earned it. We can learn the correct attitude from Paul’s statement about works:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Eph. 2:8-10)

Paul says that salvation does not come from earning it through works, but it is a free gift from God through faith in the one he has sent. Surprisingly, though, the very next thing he says is that doing good works is the very purpose for which we were created! It is not that obeying God is the way we earn his love; rather it is that God, out of love, created us to serve him this way in the first place. Paul says something very similar to the rabbis:

For three things the world is sustained: For the study of scriptures (torah), for worshipping and serving God (avodah), and for deeds of lovingkindness (gemilut hesed).3

What this means is that for three great reasons God created humanity and allows the world to even keep existing: for humans to discover God’s great love through his Word; to worship him and want to serve him because of it; and then to show God’s love to those around us. Paul also says that we were created for this purpose, to bring God glory by doing loving acts that he even planned ahead of time. All of this comes back to the first question: how can humans increase God’s (and therefore Christ’s) glory? By glorifying God by reflecting his love.

Gemilut Hesed

One of the most beautiful concepts from Jesus’ culture is that of gemilut hesed (gem-i-LOOT HES-ed), acts of lovingkindness. In Jesus’ time, attention was given to giving money to the poor, and Jesus himself emphasized it.

As good as it was to give to the poor, gemilut hesed was considered even better. It is easy to hand a $10 bill to a poor man to give him money for a meal, but to invite him into your home and share a meal shows God’s love, and causes you to grow in love as well. Because of this, some Jews make a point to use some of their “giving dollars” to do gemilut hesed with their own hands.4 I know of a woman in Jerusalem who loved to read, so she invested in a library of books and then regularly found ways of loaning or even giving them to others. Certainly a Christian could do even more by buying and sharing good devotional books or Bible studies with others.

Considering how much money we spend on entertainment from movies, cable TV, etc, wouldn’t a wonderful Christian alternative be to “entertain” ourselves with gemilut hesed? To make a “hobby” out of a particular form of kindness to others? One Christian couple I know invested in a truck to use during snowstorms, to go up and down their country road pulling people out who had slid off the road. Another friend makes a habit of stopping to help or offer a cell phone to anyone stranded with road trouble. Yet another woman, who teaches classes on job hunting, enjoys helping friends find jobs if they need one or want one that suits them better.

What about making a practice of being kind to waitresses and tipping them generously? Or inviting single or elderly people home for Sunday dinner after church? As well as, of course, to share your faith in Christ? All these kind acts have the effect of showing God’s love to others in small and great ways. They likely will have an even bigger impact on ourselves and our families, as we see God’s love transform our hearts in the process.

During Christmas time, we celebrate God’s loving act of gemilut chesed, of coming to dwell among his people on earth. He went far beyond the minimum to display his love by healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and showing mercy to the leper and outcast, and finally by dying to save his people from their sins. What better way to celebrate his coming than to spare no expense to obey his commands in the best possible way, in order to show his tremendous love to the world.

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1 For some thoughts on what God might think about using pagan traditions like Christmas trees to worship him, see “Of Standing Stones and Christmas Trees.”

2 For an example of the positive Jewish attitude toward God’s commands (mitzvot), see “Mastering One Mitzvah,” from aish.com

3 Verse 1:2 of Pirke Avot, (Sayings of the Fathers), a collection of rabbinic sayings written about 200 AD in the Mishnah. Many of these saying were attributed to rabbis who lived in Jesus’ time and even before, and many relate to things Jesus said as well. This saying is attributed to Simon the Righteous, who was said to live at the time of Ezra.

4 For many wonderful stories of the practice of Gemilut Hesed, see the outstanding book, The Book of Jewish Values, by Joseph Telushkin, (c) 2000, Bell Tower, New York

Photos: freestocks.org on Unsplash, Tom Parsons on Unsplash, Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

What Does it Mean To Hallow God’s Name?

When you pray, say: “Father, hallowed be your name….’” (Luke 11:2)

The Lord’s Prayer is loaded with meaning that we don’t fully appreciate because of cultural differences.1 In particular, the phrase “hallowed be your name” sounds foreign to us. This phrase is very rich in its original context and has an important lesson for our calling as Christians.

God’s Name as His Reputation

In ancient thinking, a person’s name was connected with his identity, authority and reputation. You might not think that God’s reputation would be an issue, but the idea of his reputation growing greater and greater throughout the world is a central theme of the biblical story.

At first, God taught only one nation, the Jews, how to live and he told them to be a “kingdom of priests” and a “light to the nations” so that the world may know about the true God of Israel (Ex. 19:6).2 Then, in the coming of Christ, God made his identity more clear, and sent his people to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19).

The overall idea is that God’s reputation would expand over the earth as people come to know who he is. This is the means by which salvation is being brought to the world as people hear good things about God, and accept Christ as their Savior. We can see that God’s reputation, or God’s “name” is of critical importance for his plan of salvation.

In the Lord’s prayer, the phrases “hallowed be your name,” “your kingdom come,” and “your will be done on earth” are related to each other in meaning. All of them are expressing the desire that God’s reputation grow on earth, that people accept God’s reign and desire to do his will.

This is probably the main intent of Jesus’ use of “hallowed be your name,” but an excellent lesson for how it is accomplished comes from the Jewish understanding of the idea of “hallowing (sanctifying) the name,” Kiddush HaShem. The opposite is Hillul HaShem — to profane the name.3 These two phrases are rich with significance in Jewish tradition and are still used today.

Why is Keeping God’s Name Holy So Important?

The rabbis of Jesus’ time closely studied the scriptures and made an interesting observation. Out of all of the ten commandments, only one carried with it a grave threat of punishment. Surprisingly it is not the prohibition against theft or murder, but rather against taking the name of the Lord in vain! The scriptures say “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain” (Ex. 20:7 NASB).

Does it seem strange that this commandment, which we interpret as a prohibition against swearing, is the only one that God promises to punish? Aren’t other sins equally or more serious?

The rabbis believed that this commandment may also have a much greater meaning.4 They pointed out that the command literally says, “You shall not lift up the name (reputation) of the Lord for an ’empty thing,'” and they interpreted that to mean, to do something evil in the name of God which would give God a bad reputation.

In Lev. 19:12, this is called “profaning the name of God”, and is referred to as Hillul HaShem in Hebrew. It is to do something evil and associate the name of God with it, which is a sin against God himself who suffers from having his reputation defamed.

Profaning the Name of God

Some examples of this clarify why “profaning the name of God” is considered an extremely serious sin. When a terrorist shouts out “Allah Akbar” (God is great) before carrying out acts of murder, the response of the world is to say, “What wicked God do you serve who commands you do such terrible things?”

CrusadesThis not only occurs in other religions, but unfortunately in Christianity as well. When televangelists commit fraud, it hardens non-believers to the message of Christ. Or, consider the Crusades, which happened almost a thousand years ago. They are still remembered with hatred because Christians murdered Jews and Muslims in the name of Christ. God’s reputation in the world has been slandered, and evangelism is seriously hindered because of the evil actions of those who bear his name.

Even in the lives of average people, this can happen. How many stories have we heard of people who were treated unfairly by church members, and have never returned to the church? They have said in their hearts, “I don’t want anything to do with you or your God.” When a church-goer is dishonest in business, rude to his neighbors, or regularly uses profanity and dirty jokes, it is a witness against Christ to the world around us. Each of us is easily capable of profaning God’s name, a very serious sin indeed.

To Sanctify the Name

Just as evil actions can damage the reputation of God in the world, good actions can bring honor to God, and this is called “sanctifying God’s name,” Kiddush HaShem. This means to live in such a way as to bring God glory — as when Jesus said, “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).

The rabbis described it as one of three things: to live a life of integrity, carefully observing the biblical commands; or to do some heroic deed, like risking one’s life to save another; or even to be martyred to honor God. We think of spreading the gospel through information, but they point out that the world is watching our lives too. When we think of sanctifying God’s name, these stories speak volumes:

  • Many En-Gedi supporters contributed money toward the installation of some water units for villages in Uganda. When the site preparation team was visiting these sites, they were welcomed enthusiastically by each village with a ceremony of thanks. Our local coordinator, Rev. Titus Baraka, made a point to explain that these water systems were brought in the name of Jesus Christ, who brings living water to the world. He also explained that this water is not only for Anglicans or Protestants, or Catholics or Muslims, but for everyone in the community.
    One local water committee member stood up to make the following remark: “I represent the Muslim community here. When I see that you have come here at great expense… when I see the way you do your work… when I see that you want to show love to people you don’t even know, I realize that you serve a greater God than I do. It makes me want to “cross over” to become a Christian.”

  • Jonathan Miles is a Christian who has a ministry of bringing Palestinian and Iraqi children to Israeli hospitals for heart surgery.5 His work has a powerful impact on the Muslims and Jews who see him and his staff regularly risk their lives, in the name of Christ, to serve others.
    One time, while he was waiting to pick up an infant in Gaza, he was verbally assaulted by a Hamas member for several minutes. When the man finally asked him why he was there, he explained that he was trying to locate a certain infant who needed medical care. When the man heard what his mission was, he was like a balloon quickly deflated!
    He immediately asked how he could help and took Jonathan all around town searching for the infant. They actually became friends over time! Jonathan said that the man is now even considering becoming a Christian. What a profound change came over this man from Jonathan’s actions to serve God.

Hallowing God’s Name with our Lives

We have all heard of heroic Christians like Corrie Ten Boom or Dietrich Bonhoeffer who by their actions make people ask the question, “Who is this Christ, that you would sacrifice so much to serve him?”

The ultimate example of sanctifying God’s name, however, is Jesus himself. As God incarnate, his death on the cross has proclaimed to all the world that the God of Israel is a merciful, self-sacrificial God. No one who believes that Jesus is God himself can claim that God is cruel or uncaring because Jesus has proven otherwise through his own actions. Because of his great sacrifice, God’s reputation has expanded to the ends of the world.

As Jesus’ followers, we are commanded to be like him, as a “nation of priests” and a light to the world. We need to be always aware that the world is watching, so that our actions always reflect the holiness and love of the God that we serve.

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light (1 Peter 2:9).

We are under constant scrutiny whether we are aware of it or not. Let us always try to be a favorable witness to the Holy Name whose image we bear.

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1 A series of articles on the Lord’s Prayer in its Jewish context by Dr. Brad Young can be found at www.jerusalemperspective.com. (Premium Content subscription required.)

2 See the En-Gedi article “Letting Our Tassels Show” for more about the idea of being a “kingdom of priests.”

3 H. H. Ben-Sasson, Kiddush Ha-Shem and Hillul HaShem, Encyclopedia Judaica CD-ROM, Version 1.0, 1997

4 J. Telushkin, The Book of Jewish Values, p 197. Copyright 2000, Bell Tower. ISBN 0-609-60330-2. (This is an outstanding book on ethics for living. Available at Barnes & Noble or online.)

5 Jonathan Miles’ ministry is called Shevet Achim.

Photos: Yoav Dothan [Public domain]; Jenaer Kodex [Public domain]; Painting “Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet” by Ford Maddox Brown)

Say Little, Do Much

What wisdom can we learn from Abraham, the man whom God chose to make a covenant to bless the world? The rabbis were delightfully sensitive to little details in each biblical story, and their favorite stories were those of the patriarchs — Abraham, Isaac and Jacob — who they considered superheroes of faith. Certainly, they thought, we can learn from them how to live.

Bosom of AbrahamListen to what they found in the story of Abraham and his heavenly visitors in Genesis 18. When three strangers came to Abraham’s door he said, “Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way—now that you have come to your servant” (vs. 4-5).

Instead, he told Sarah to kneed three seahs (about 50 pounds!) of their finest flour into bread. He next ran out to his herd and chose one of his best calves, choice and tender, and found a servant to prepare it. Then he brought some curds and fresh milk too. It would have taken most of a day to prepare this luscious feast. The bread would need to rise, and the calf would need to roast for hours. I think there would have been enough food for fifty people or more.

Abraham had no idea who these strangers were who came to his door, and all he promised them was a little water and just a bite to eat to tide them over for their trip, but instead, he rolled out the red carpet and prepared a luxurious feast for them. Wow.

The great rabbi Shammai (who lived about fifty years before Jesus) shared an excellent comment on how to live by Abraham’s example: “Say little, do much.”1 A later rabbi added, “What does this mean? It teaches that the righteous say little and do much, whereas the wicked say much and do not even a little.”2

Jesus said a similar thing when he told the parable about the two sons in Matthew 21:

What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’ ‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go. Which of the two did what his father wanted? (Mt 21:28-3)

Vineyard

One son had the shocking chutzpah to say “no” to his father, something a son didn’t do in those days! Yet he then he went and did what he was told. The other respectfully said, “Yes, sir!” And then he didn’t actually do what he was supposed to.

I’ve been feeling convicted about this in my own life recently, because I’ve said that I’d do things and then backed out of them. Or I’ve forgotten my words in the midst of the other things that became important later. Or I’ve simply changed my mind! If I have a good reason, I apologize and usually people forgive me. If I forget, it just doesn’t get done, and in my mind I think, “Well it must not have been too important — maybe the other person won’t mind.”

Then I remembered one friend who made some exciting plans with me. I was very enthusiastic about what we’d do together, but then he canceled out later. Then he had the gall to do it more than once! I admit that I was irritated at him for years. It wasn’t until that I saw myself in him that I got over my anger. In his mind he genuinely wanted to do the thing he promised when he made the promise, just like I did. We were both a bundle of good intentions! Good intentions, however, aren’t the same as follow-through.

As much as I see this lack-of-follow-through in myself, it seems to be a common trait among us nowadays. I wonder if it isn’t part of our easy-going American culture. I remember reading a booklet for newly-arriving international students that warned, “When Americans tell you, ‘We will have you over to our house for supper some time,’ don’t be disappointed if they don’t invite you the next week. They may not ever invite you, but this is just their way of voicing their general intentions of welcome.”

Ouch. I imagine that this advice came out of the experience of many an international student who felt crushed and angry when their phone didn’t ring. I may have even issued some of those “mock invitations” myself.

As it says in Proverbs 25:14, “Like clouds and wind without rain is a man who boasts of gifts he does not give.”

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1 Pirke Avot 1:15

2 Avot d’Rabbi Natan 13:3

Photos: Herrad von Landsberg; Brocken Inaglory [CC BY-SA 3.0]

The Evil Tongue

by Lois Tverberg

“Whoever of you loves life and desires to see many good days, guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceitfully.” Psalm 34:12-13, quoted in 1 Peter 3:10

The writer of Psalm 34 reminds us that the key to a long life of good days is to “guard your tongue from evil.” There has been much thought on the question of what is an “evil tongue” by Jews since the time of Jesus.

In Hebrew, words “the evil tongue” are translated as Lashon Hara (La-SHON Hah-RAH). This term is used for gossip – in particular, defaming someone to others by revealing negative details about them. Lashon Hara is different from slander, which is telling lies about others.

Lashon Hara is telling co-workers about how the boss bungled his presentation, or telling your husband how poorly the worship leader sings. This habit tears down friendships, demeans others, and undermines trust. There are, of course, a few times damaging information needs to be relayed, but otherwise, this speech is usually very destructive.

The rabbis point out that other actions close to Lashon Hara should be avoided as well. For instance, to read a newspaper editorial that you don’t like and then show it to someone just so they will scoff is called the “Dust of Lashon Hara.” It also includes sarcastic comments about another person, like, “She is such a genius, isn’t she?” Even to sneer when someone else gossips qualifies, because it communicates your negative feelings. It truly is a difficult task to avoid damaging others through subtle comments and even body language.

How do we heal our speech so that our relationships can be more fulfilling? Jesus says, “Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.” (Matthew 12:34) He diagnoses the problem as one of the heart. One major culprit behind gossip is our desire to see others’ actions in the worst light possible. If a friend doesn’t invite you to a party, was it an oversight, or was there malicious intent? A person who assumes the worst will want to report the slight to everyone, but a person who assumes the best will not be bothered. Our whole attitude toward others changes when we try always to give others the benefit of the doubt.

Another major reason for unkind speech is our desire to elevate ourselves by tearing others down. It may work temporarily, but over time demeans us in the eyes of others. Paul has a solution: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:3-4) If we genuinely care as much about others as ourselves, we will try to protect their reputation as much as we do our own.

Sharing Our Grief

by Mary and Holly Okkema

“A good name is better than fine perfume, and the day of death better than the day of birth.” Ecclesiastes 7:1

Jewish GraveWhy is the day of death better than the day of birth? As sad as the death of a pre-born or young child may be, the death of one who has lived a longer life is of greater sadness. The longer one lives the better we know their character. This quote from Mendele Mokher Seforim says, “Among the Jews, a birthday is no holiday, but the anniversary of a death, that a Jew remembers.” (1)

What can we learn from this? In the Jewish tradition, there are four points of mourning (Avelut). The first point of mourning is Anilut, which is the burial. After the burial, the first meal eaten is called Seudat Havra’ah or meal of recovery. The second period of mourning is Shiva, which lasts for the seven days following the burial (Gen 50:10). The mourning does not stop after seven days; a third stage of mourning called Shloshim continues for 30 days (Deut.21:13), though most daily activities resume. Finally, each year the anniversary of the death is observed, called Yahrzeit. The local community remembers this anniversary at the conclusion of each Shabbat service. The surviving family is also encouraged to remember their deceased during the pilgrim festivals every year. (2)

Compare this with our current tradition. In a church funeral loving words are spoken of the deceased and the gospel is preached; that is, they proclaim that Jesus is risen, and insist that those who died in Him shall be risen too. From there, for about two weeks, the church shows how much they care with casseroles and consolation calls. After those two weeks, the community goes back to normal life. How can they forget, while the mourner is still in a great state of grief? Can it be that Christians do not know how to lament? (2)

We have strong examples of lamenting in the Psalms. According to one set of statistics, of the 150 Psalms, 43 of them are personal laments and 14 for communal lament. (3) In reading the laments of the psalmists, we see the writers expressing their grief and anger to God honestly, and we can be encouraged to do the same.

Although we are lamenting we are still called to praise, and this is reflected in Jewish practices. In every religious service in Judaism, the Mourner’s Kaddish is read. Kaddish is a curious collection of four verses which does not speak of mourning, but is a prayer about God, describing Him as magnified, sanctified, and worthy to be praised. Individuals are forbidden to pray Kaddish alone; they are commanded to pray with people, in the community of God’s faithful. (4) This tradition teaches that even as we mourn together, we are to praise together. Furthermore, as the community mourns, we are reminded that God is present, bearing our sorrows with us.

Looking to the New Testament, we read in Romans 12 and 13 general guidelines Paul set for becoming a united community. Within those guidelines, he wrote, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15). This is a concept from the Gemara (Part II of the Talmud, 3rd to 5th century C.E.), which says, “A person should share in the distress of the community” (Ta’anit 11a). (5) Messianic Jews from Paul’s day knew that they were to continuously mourn together as a community, and Paul was communicating that to the trans-cultural community, and thus to us today.

Therefore, learning from the Jewish traditions of Avelut and everyday worship practices, let us, in our current culture, reach out to those who are grieving not just at the time of the death, but throughout the first year and each additional year. As the mourner’s grief plateaus, subsides, and turns to memories, let us continually join in remembering those who have gone before us.


(1) Telushkin, Joseph. Jewish Wisdom. New York: W. Morrow, 1994.

(2) Winner, Lauren. Mudhouse Sabbath. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2003,
p. 27-36.
(3) Catalao, Rosann. “Praying at the Edge.” The Institute for Christian and Jewish
Studies. (www.icjs.org/what/edge.html)
(4) Bokser, Ben Zion. The Prayer Book. New York: Behrman House Publishers, 1983,
p. 202-3.
(5) Stern, David. Jewish New Testament Commentary. Clarksville, MD: Jewish New
Testament Publications, 1996.

Please also see the related article: Praying the Psalms, by Mary Okkema

Photo: Utilisateur:Djampa

Get Yourself a Friend

by Lois Tverberg

“For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.” Matthew 18:20

In Western Christian culture today, a common approach to studying the Bible is to have a quiet time where we isolate ourselves in solitary study. In Jesus’ community-oriented culture, however, they had a very different approach. From Jesus’ time until today, students in Jewish religious schools have always studied in pairs – discussing, arguing and grappling with the text together. When one doesn’t understand, the other explains, and together they think of possible interpretations and other Bible texts that help in understanding.

Men Studying Talmud They said that if you want to truly study the scriptures you should “Get yourself a teacher (rabbi) and get yourself a friend (haver).” (Pirke Avot 1:3). The word haver (hah-VAIR) is loosely translated “friend”, but more specifically refers to a partner in studing God’s word. Anyone who has been a part of a good Bible study group knows that the bonds between haverim are often deep and strong. By spending time discussing God’s word and praying for each other’s burdens, people quickly become very close. Their testimonies of how their lives are impacted by their studying reinforces the text, giving real-life examples to inspire others.

Sometimes we feel we need to be alone to hear God’s voice, not realizing that God’s Spirit often speaks best through other people. God desires that we live in community and love him together — not turn inward, ignore others, and seek him alone. The rabbis of Jesus’ time had a fascinating way of describing this. They said, “When two sit together and exchange words of Torah, then the Divine Presence dwells with them.” (Pirke Avot 2:3) It seems that Jesus wanted to reinforce this to his own followers, telling them that for eternity, his Spirit would be with them in their assembling as a body too. He said,”Where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.” (Matt 18:20)


Photo: Roylindman

A Hot-Tempered Teacher

by Lois Tverberg

“And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must
be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those
who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope
that God will grant them repentance leading them to
a knowledge of the truth.” 2 Timothy 2:24-25

When we have something to share with the world, how should we share it? It is easy when you are passionate about something, especially about God’s word, to use strong, angry words to shake up your audience. Especially if you disagree with other opinions, it is easy to want to denounce those who are so foolish to disagree with you.

Rage of AchillesThere is an excellent saying from around Jesus’ time that relates to this issue, which says: “The hot-tempered person cannot teach.” (Pirke Avot 2:5) Aimed at those who teach the Scriptures, it was a warning that once a communicator loses his temper, he loses his ability to communicate. A related saying can also help us: “Anyone who allows himself to become angry – if he is wise, he loses all his wisdom” (Talmud, Pesachim 66b).

We can learn from this about the damage that occurs when we let anger affect the way we think and communicate. First, when we are angry we often leap to assumptions, especially about the people we are trying to reach. The street-corner preacher who shouts at his audience about their wicked lifestyles has made an accusation that justifiably offends people. He presumes the worst, accusing his listeners of things he doesn’t know, and he loses his ability to reach them.

In the same way, accusing the church of anti-Semitism for not teaching about Jesus in his Jewish context also makes assumptions about people’s motivations that we have no right to make. Just because we’ve grown in understanding shouldn’t make us prideful. Instead, we should be the most humble, knowing that we have had to change our minds about the things we used to sincerely believe ourselves.

Whether we are trying to share the gospel with a non-believer or our knowledge about our Jewish roots to our pastor, we need to remember to guard against an argumentative attitude or anger. Knowing that others have walked different paths but are trying, as we are, to discern the truth, we should always answer “with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. ” 1 Peter 3:15-16

Not Yours to Complete

by Lois Tverberg

“Do you not say, `Four months more and then the harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. Even now the reaper draws his wages, even now he harvests the crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. Thus the saying `One sows and another reaps’ is true. I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor.” John 4:35-38

Anyone who looks at the world as it is today can see the enormous need for God to send out his people to help redeem it. Enormous numbers of people need to know the gospel, broken families and broken people need help, and the hungry need to be fed. Just hearing about the devastation of the tsunami is overwhelming – how can these people ever recover?

Natural Disaster Wreckage

A wise saying regarding this comes from the Mishnah:”The task is not yours to complete, but neither are you free to desist from it.” (Pirke Avot 2:21) It means that we should not use the excuse that our help might be futile to decide to do nothing. We might say that our money, time and effort are just drops in an ocean of need — why bother? But as Jesus reminded his disciples in today’s passage, the disciples were building on the work of others who didn’t live to see the finished product of their faithfulness. We reap from others’ efforts, and those following us will reap from ours.

We may despair that there is any point to doing the little things, like sending a few dollars to help with disaster relief, or caring for an elderly neighbor’s needs. Or we may feel like if we discuss our faith with a non-believer but did not “pray the sinner’s prayer,” our efforts are wasted. But Paul says that he planted and another (Apollos) watered, but God gave the growth (1 Cor. 3:6-7). God’s plans are much greater than we could ever imagine, and he only expects each of us to do our part in them. All he asks it that we be faithful in what we are given, and let him work through others to accomplish the rest.


Photo: Trocaire

An Attitude of ‘We’

by Lois Tverberg

“The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body – whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free – and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.” 1 Corinthians 12:12-13

A few years ago when I visited a synagogue as part of a group, we talked with some of the Orthodox Jewish boys who were studying there. They took out the Torah scrolls and we asked them what the reading was for this week. They said, “This week we are reading the story of how God brought us out of Egypt and saved us from the Egyptians.” It struck me that the boys used the pronoun “us” as if they had been right there crossing the Red Sea. It is common in Jewish culture that when people discuss the Israelites in the Scriptures, they use the pronoun “us,” because their ancestors and they are one people.

We can learn from their example to put ourselves personally into the stories of the Bible as we read. Then when we read about the Israelites rebelling because they were tired of eating manna, we wouldn’t say, “I don’t know why God chose such a whiny people!” but rather, “My people got tired of eating manna – and I would have too because of my own sinful nature. How great of God to have showed such grace to us!” As Paul said, we are “ingrafted branches” into God’s covenant people, and need to understand our indebtedness and connectedness to God’s people all the way back to 4000 years ago.

Group of Christians

And, we should remember to focus on our connection with other members of the body of Christ. A few years ago, when the news featured stories on the enormous amount of oppression Christians are facing all over the world, many of us woke up to the need to pray for our brothers and sisters in the persecuted church. But the reporter who found and worked up the story was actually Jewish! Because of his own sense of identity with his people, and his personal sense of woundedness from what was done to the Jews during the Holocaust, he wanted Christians to know what was happening to their “family”!

In modern Western culture we are highly individualistic, and find it difficult to live together when we care only about our own needs. But by thinking more about “we” and less about “I” we can live out God’s command to love each other as we love ourselves.


Photo: ‘Inyan