Wednesday, June 16th 2021   |

Off the Pulpit: The trap of acclaim

By RABBI DAVID WOLPE

The Athenian general Phocion was considered the wisest politician of his day, although he often opposed the prevailing consensus. Once, when his speech was interrupted by enthusiastic cheering, he paused: “Have I inadvertently said something stupid?”

Everyone in public life has had this experience. There are certain declarative or even disparaging statements that will arouse enthusiasm, not for their wisdom, but for their effectiveness as rallying cries. This power to evoke emotion is not the captive of any political party or faction and is addictive both to the speaker and to the crowd. Measured, thoughtful words do not bring people to their feet. The sober eloquence of the Gettysburg address may have made it immortal, but the reception at the time was mixed.

Perhaps that is why Moses calls heaven and earth to witness his final words (Deut. 32:1). They are not platitudes to whip the passions of the crowd; they are not appeals to anger, resentment, revenge or empty pride. Moses spoke not to the mania of the moment but the ages. If our utterances, in public or on social media, were less sensational and more soulful, perhaps they too would be worthy of being remembered.

(Rabbi David Wolpe is the senior rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles.)

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