A dozen years ago I stood on the bowling green in Frick Park with a group of Jewish teachers from my community to listen to Gabe Goldman, an educator with a strong passion for the environment who had recently arrived in town. He pointed out some poison ivy to us, and then reminded us that often, in nature, the antidote to a poisonous or noxious plant is found in the immediate vicinity of the offending species. The solution is embedded in the same environment that produced the problem.
A well-known Mishna in Pirke Avot (5:6) asserts that God works the same way. At dusk on the sixth day of creation, just before the twilight that would usher in the first Shabbat, God created 10 things that would seem later to be miracles. The Mishna, however, asserts that these were no miracles in the sense of violating the order of the universe, but rather things that were built into the fabric of that universe from the beginning, to serve a single purpose.
The first three items on this list have two key characteristics on common: first, they appear in the Torah in three consecutive parshiyot, the three we are in the midst of last week and this (Korah, Hukkat, and Balak), and they all contain the word pi – mouth (of). Pi Haaretz, the mouth of the earth, pi habeer, the mouth of the well, and pi ha aton, the mouth of the donkey. Each serves to put an end to a crisis of major proportions – and together, they teach us a lesson about how other crises of similar import in our lives ought to be handled.
Pi ha-aretz is the crack that opens in the ground to swallow up the followers of Korah who rebel against Moshe, putting an end to the revolt. Pi ha-beer is the mouth of Miriam’s well, the source of water that follows the Israelites through the desert providing water. It seems to have appeared after the incident at Marah, in Exodus, where the people first complain that they have no water to drink just after crossing the Sea of Reeds. In Parashat Hukkat, however, Miriam dies and the well dries up, and again there is no water. Pi ha-aton is the talking donkey on whom Bil’am, the pagan prophet hired by King Balak, rides toward the Israelite camp, intending to curse them. The donkey refuses to budge, saving Bil’am’s life, when they encounter an angel with a flaming sword that only the donkey can see, and when Bil’am urges her on, she speaks to him, ultimately leading to the moment when Bil’am opens his own mouth to speak curses and praise pours out.
Judaism frowns upon waiting for miracles. We all know the joke (my go-to version involves a man in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina) about the man whose house is flooding, and a truck drives by. “Get in,” they shout. “No, thanks,” he tells them, “God will save me.” The waters inundate the first floor and he goes to the second floor window, where a rowboat pulls up. “Get in,” they shout. “No thanks,” he says again, “God will save me.” The waters rise further, and he climbs up on the roof. A helicopter circles overhead and drops a ladder to him. “CLIMB UP!!!” they yell over the din of the rotors. “NO THANKS!!! GOD WILL SAVE ME!!!” he shouts back, waving them away.
After the man inevitably drowns, he arrives in the Olam HaBa and confronts God. “Where were you?!? I always believed that you would save me!” “Who do you think sent the truck, the boat and the helicopter, you fool?” comes the reply.
The solutions to crises are built into the universe somehow, yet our Mishna is silent on the matter of which solutions are built in for our time, speaking only of incidents that had already past. Or is it?
The beginning of the Mishna tells us these ten things, including our three mouths, were created “b’erev Shabbat bein ha-sh’mashot” – on the eve of Shabbat at twilight. In other words, just in the nick of time before God stopped creating altogether. There was one other “mouth” created on erev Shabbat, however, just before these ten wondrous items. Pi ha-Adam – the mouth of the human, the very last creature brought into existence. We were created just in the nick of time, and it is often through our mouths that we solve our worst problems.
Clearly, not just any words will do. We regularly ask God, yihyu l’ratzon imrei fi (pi) v’hegyon libi l’fanecha. May the words of my mouth and the logic of my heart be desirable before You. Imagine, for example, the pi-ha-be’er opening – and finding no water inside. Empty words, like an apology that explains why I wasn’t really at fault, or a “thoughts and prayers” statement after a senseless death, solve no problems, other than assuaging the speaker’s of feelings of guilt, which were never the real crisis in the first place.
Harmful words are no good, either. Had Bil’am’s mouth opened to speak the curses before the donkey had her say, things would have gone much worse for the people. And Moshe’s solution to the well drying up is to insult the people, calling them rebels, and then strike the rock in anger instead of speaking gently to it as he is instructed. The people get their water in the end; Moshe doesn’t fare so well, losing his right to enter the Promised Land.
It is the right words that we need. The other day I caught up with my dear friend Jac’qui, a nurse on whom my partner and I often used to rely for “tough love.” But tough love, as I’ve written before, is toughest on the person giving it, if it’s done right. Knowing exactly what to say, being able to speak the uncomfortable truths without malice or intent to harm, is extraordinarily difficult.
Our current crises demand mouths that are very careful – beginning with what turns out to be the very challenging act of covering them, not just when we cough, but all the time. But more than that, they demand mouths that are at once loud, firmly stating the reality of the danger we still face from the pandemic or frankly calling out racist behaviors and policies, and soft, pushing people toward a change in behavior without insulting their intelligence or ruining relationships that extend back decades.
A couple months ago, around the peak of the initial wave of the pandemic, a woman I take care of told me casually about the pains she was having in her arm and the trouble she was having with her breathing. Even the non-medical people reading this might already be imagining my rising concern that she was at risk for a heart attack. My mouth had to navigate the challenge of validating her fears about COVID19 while planting a new concern about her heart, getting her worried enough to promise to seek care if the pain returned while not scaring her into a panic. Many of you may be navigating similar challenges, pursuing a reevaluation of implicit racism in your workplace while trying to maintain respect for your co-workers, or negotiating tricky disagreements around social distancing boundaries with close friends or family.
Mouths, if our Mishna is to be taken metaphorically, are for swallowing arrogance and selfishness, pouring forth life and sustenance, and calling people out when they are mistaken. And when the voice does not come from heaven, it needs to come from inside of us. Let us make careful, holy use of it.