Friday, January 2, 2015

Vayehi, Euphemisms and Truth Telling

Happy New Year! May 2015 be filled with good health and much happiness. May the world see at least a measure of peace!

I find myself wondering about euphemisms, the common phrases we use to shroud uncomfortable truths. Chief among these are those that we use to report death. “He passed,” we say. “She passed away,” others recount.

I wonder: do such phrases make the loss any less real? Do they shield us from the pain? And yet we continue to speak these words. Even the Bible mirrors these phrases. It appears to echo our discomfort.

The Torah reports: “When Jacob finished his instructions to his sons, he drew his feet into the bed and, breathing his last, he was gathered to his people.” (Genesis 49:33) The Haftarah affirms: “So David slept with his fathers, and he was buried in the City of David.” (I Kings 2:10) This is how the Bible reports the deaths of our forefather Jacob and King David.

But Judaism insists that we not shy away from confronting death. We must face its stark truth. There is no mitzvah more difficult than placing a shovel of earth into a loved one’s grave. Why do we do this? It is because we leave this act to no one but ourselves. We assume this responsibility with our own hands. We do not leave this task to strangers. We return the love given to us in life with this act of hesed, with an act that can never be repaid. By doing so we also, and perhaps even more importantly, help to see the reality of the death standing before our eyes. When taking the shovel into our hands there is no longer mistaking the truth that lies before us.

Still we continue to rely on euphemisms. We turn aside from truth. Our language obscures stark realities. In the newspapers we read about enhanced interrogation methods when we mean torture. We write of collateral damage when it is the violent deaths of innocent human beings we mean. Euphemisms obscure the truth that we must confront. I understand that in war soldiers must dehumanize their enemies with slang terms to obscure the horrible deeds they must do to defend our country and our lives. Their commanders as well come up with acronyms such as KIA to cover up the truth that they send good men and women to their deaths.

Such euphemisms continue to obfuscate the realities about which we must speak. Can we repair our world, can we bring even a measure of peace, when we are unable to speak with honesty and clarity?

The poet Peter Cole writes:
And may my love and language lead me into
that perplexity, and that simplicity,
altering what I might otherwise be.
But let it happen through speech’s clarity—
as normal magic, which certain words renew. (Things on Which I've Stumbled)
The truth about death is always harsh. It continues to sting. There is no mitigating its barbs.

Language always falls short.

“Joseph flung himself upon his father Jacob’s face and wept over him and kissed him.” (Genesis 50:1)

He was gathered to his people. Still the son mourns the father.

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