Wednesday, December 2, 2009

We should speak with humility, God willing

We should speak with humility, God willing
Rivy Poupko Kletenik • JTNews Columnist
Posted: August 19, 2009

Including requests for God’s watchful eye in our conversation makes a difference

Dear Rivy,
I don’t know when I started noticing this or maybe once I did notice it, I just started to notice it more. What I’m talking about is the habit some people have, when talking, to throw in a “God willing” about any anticipated event in the upcoming future. For example, “We are, God willing, going to Los Angeles next week.”

I am wondering about why they do this. Is this mandated by Jewish law? Is it a custom? Is it wrong to not say it?

You have picked up on a subtle nuance that is most certainly an element of the standard parlance of many pious people. Extreme caution when speaking is something encouraged by a host of our traditional texts. Whether in regard to how we speak (“words spoken softly by the wise are heeded”), or of what we speak (“do not be a talebearer”), or when we speak (“say less — do more”). Speech is considered a powerful tool, fraught with potential pitfalls.

But you raise a somewhat different aspect of speech. Some might say that those who invoke the English “God willing” or the Hebrew phrases “im yirtzeh Hashem” which translates as “if God wishes” or “be’ezrat Hashem,” meaning “with the help of God,” are trying to do their best to ward off the evil eye and we might be tempted to leave it there. In truth, there is more here than simple superstition.

Not that I would ever, ever mess with the evil eye. Those of us who grew up with notions of ayin hara, the evil eye, do not cast it aside with ease. By no stretch of the imagination did the thought of it rule our lives, but neither was it to be taken lightly. In fact, I am the duly respectful proprietor of an anti-evil eye incantation. My mother, of blessed memory, confidentially passed on to me a secret Yiddish chant that is assured to ward off the evil eye. I was not, she cautioned, to use this invocation unless it was absolutely necessary. It was certainly not to be evoked casually.

The core belief of ayin hara is that there are bad vibes out there, perhaps from people who may be envious of you. They could cast an “evil eye” upon you at your very pinnacle of success or good fortune, when you might be most vulnerable, to bring you down. Therefore, in a prophylactic effort, some utter “God willing” with the hope that its effect will undermine the muscle of the “evil eye.”

The following Midrashic puzzle addresses this very practice. Here’s the puzzle: One story, two versions. In Devarim Rabbah, we find the following short story: Once Rabbi Simeon, the son of Halafta, went to a circumcision ceremony. The father of the child made a feast and gave those present 7-year-old wine to drink, saying, ‘Of this wine, I will store away a portion for my son’s wedding feast.’ Later on, the sage, having the opportunity to chat with the Angel of Death, was told that though the father had excitedly pronounced, “Of this wine I will store away a portion for my son’s wedding feast,” this father has no idea that tragically, his child’s time has come. He is to be snatched away after 30 days and will therefore never have a wedding feast.

The episode is of course deeply disturbing. Curiously, the same story appears in Kohelet Rabbah, but here the father speaks a bit differently. He says instead, “Drink some of this old wine, and I trust in the Lord of heaven that He will grant me to offer you drink at his wedding feast.” Something has been added: A version of our “God willing.” This is one part of the very different narrative, which goes on to say that the baby’s life is spared. Quite the puzzle.

It is not that we would say that the baby’s life is spared because of the addition of the father’s, “and I trust in the Lord of heaven that He will grant me.” That would be pushing the providential envelope. But rather, there were deeply disturbing elements in the first version and in a subsequent rendition the disturbing elements were tweaked. One of those disturbing elements is the haughtiness of the father, who unabashedly and arrogantly boasts, “Of this wine I will store away a portion for my son’s wedding feast.”

In contrast, in the second version, we feel the humility, some of the “by the grace of God go I” stance that is more behooving of one who walks humbly with the Lord. This stance is what lies behind the pronouncing of “God willing.”

That you hear a number of “God willings” begs the question of overuse. Is there an appropriate utilization of the expression? Is there a point where it becomes a trite aphorism encouraging mockery rather than sincerity? Who’s to say? We are a people taken with adages and rote formulations. My mother would tell of a rabbi who would visit their house on Shabbat and with every mouthful of food he would raise to his lips he would say, “l’kavod Shabbos kodesh,” in honor of the holy Sabbath. Every morsel! It was a visceral devotional exercise in his experiencing the holiness of his food. It left a deep impression on a little girl.

So, too, this “God willing” expression. Though this is not anything that would fall under the rubric of Jewish law, it is instead one of those subtleties that conveys a certain worldview. The skill of speaking carefully and responsibly is a lifetime occupation; few among us have no regrets in this regard. This particular nuance is an opportunity to train ourselves in humility and, God willing, we will be the better for it.