Nine years ago, I wrote a musing for Shabbat Shuvah entitled "Bull From Our Lips" I offer it again to you this year, slightly massaged, revised, and re-written.
The prophet Hosea says in one of the special haftarot for Shabbat Shuvah:
"K’chu imachem d’varim "Take words with you
v’shuvu el-Ad-nai, and return to the Lr"d,
imru eylai, Say to Him:
kol-tisa avon, ‘Forgive all guilt
v’kach tov, and accept what is good;
un’shalma parim s’fateinu" instead of bulls we will pay [the offering of] our lips.’"
Our words are what we offer to G"d instead of animals. Which words? The words of
prayer? Of praise? Of repentance? Of our hearts? Of our minds? Perhaps it’s not the words themselves- it’s how we use them, and what we use them for. Our words are taken the place of bulls, but bull should not be coming from our lips.
Intent matters. The words may be difficult to pray. You may not understand them. You may disagree with them. How you deal with that matters. You can spout the words of the given liturgy, use a newer version of the liturgy, or, some say, even substitute your own words. I’m not sure it matters much to G"d if you’re chanting or ortho-mumbling traditional Hebrew liturgy, reading English translations, using some fanciful new liturgy, or simply speaking what is in your heart. In fact, I suspect that G"d might appreciate the latter most. Just as long as when you pray, there’s no bull on your lips.
Of course, what do you do in those times when you faith is weak, challenged, or unsure. For some, just saying the familiar words, even without the intent behind them, works. In that case, their intent is simply performing their ritual obligation. Shall we count that as any lesser intent? Is it up to us to judge?
Of late, I’ve been in discussion with peers and colleagues about the future of Judaism, and things like cyber-shuls and digital sefer Torahs. While the idea may seem strange to some, for others, it is their way of connecting. Again, it should not be for us to judge what works spiritually for another.
Let’s take the discussion beyond the synagogue, beyond the uttering of ritual prayer. These days, it seems like bull is sprouting from just about everyone’s mouth. It’s hard to separate the truth from the garbage. Some say it’s our sound-byte society. The fewer words we use, the harder it becomes to express the range of what we really want to say. (Trust me, using Twitter is teaching me, someone who has struggled with an overly verbose style of writing and speaking for decades, how not to waste words. Having only 140 characters to make a point really forces you ti whittle it down to the essentials. Nevertheless, as our own scriptures teach us, sometimes the fewest words express things the best
Some say it’s the language itself. It has grown so dense, so complicated, so full of slang, buzzwords, etc. that one can’t help but use them.
Words, words, words. It’s not the words that are the problem. We need the words to communicate. It’s how we use them, and what we use them for. Imagine for a moment a good person, one who embraces his faith, has respect for themselves and respect for others. Who strives to treat others as another "you" or "thou" rather than an "it", as Martin Buber would put it. Are not all their efforts in vain if they do not use the language of communication properly? A mutual language of communication must reflect mutual respect. Once any bull starts emanating from their lips, the process is hopelessly poisoned.
As it is with each other, then so it must be with G"d. As …what comes from our lips shall be like the offering of bulls to G ‘d. Hosea wasn’t just telling us that Temple sacrifices can be replaced by words. These words are our sacrifice to G"d. Thus we must treat what we say in our communications with G"d carefully, keep them as unblemished as the bulls we would offer up. No less in true in our communications with each other.
Not that we cannot be earthy. One good look at the Psalms will tell us that our tradition teaches us to truly speak our feelings to G"d-even if those feelings are anger, disappointment, lack of faith. G"d hears those kinds of expressions, and they are just as much a sacrifice to G"d as are words of praise, thanks and submission.
Still, we will know, and G"d will know, if the words we utter, no matter how beautiful, glorious, and seemingly pious, are words in the place of bulls, or the stuff that bulls leave behind.
We are truly fortunate, in our Jewish tradition, that we have been given so many words to use and ways to use them, in our communications with G"d. We have the prose and poetry of the siddur, the psalms, songs and liturgies. These words are so well crafted that they can be truly natural coming from
our own lips and hearts and minds as if they were our own. It is no crime nor shame to use them when we cannot find words of our own (and because the power of using these words communally is so great, there is good reason to try and use them whenever you can.)
Yet sometimes that doesn’t work. I know there are times I try to pray the words of the siddur and know that my lips are offering not sacrificial bulls, but the other kind of bull. Those are the times when I must find other words with which to speak with G"d. And speak I must. Pray I must. For each day and each moment reveal to me G"d’s creation, and also G"d’s frustrating mystery.
Pray. Pray to G"d. If all you can pray is "G"d, I don’t want to pray" or "G"d, I don’t believe in prayer" that’s ok. That kind of truth is like a sacrifice to G"d. That’s no bull. Let what you pray be an offering of your lips.
I wish you and yours a Shabbat Shalom and G’mar Khatima Tovah!!
©2009 (portions ©2000) by Adrian A. Durlester