Vaera III - THE PROPER USE OF PRONOUNS
SOMEONE SAID that the character of an individual can be appraised by the personal pronouns he is in the habit of using. The one who expresses himself frequently in the assertive "I" is an egotist who represents the narrow and selfish view of life. The Haftorah which was read this morning refers to a prominent figure who illustrates this conceited philosophy. His name was Pharaoh, King of Egypt, who lived in the days of Ezekiel. Said the prophet in the name of God, "Behold I am against thee, Pharaoh King of Egypt ... who hath said: My river is mine own and I have made it myself. But I will put hooks in thy jaws, and I will cause fish of thy rivers to stick into thy scales, and I will bring thee up out of the midst of thy rivers.. ." (Ezekiel 28: 3).
Another example of one who believes that the world begins and ends with himself is Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, who would strut along the walks of his capitol and exclaim, "Is not great Babylon which I built for the royal dwelling place, by the might of my power, and for the glory of my majesty!" Nebuchadnezzar failed to mention the hordes who carried the stones and the other materials; the artisans who made the splendid city possible; the thousands of loyal subjects who paid for everything. He could think only of himself.
An oriental story tells of two brothers who wanted to perpetuate their memories. One cut a great obelisk from a quarry, engraved in bold letters his name upon it, and placed the ollelisk beside the highway. There it stood for centuries as a useless monument to a self-centered fool. The other brother dug a well beside the desert highway, and planted palm trees around the well. In the course of time that spot became a beautiful oasis where the weary traveler stopped to quench his thirst, to feed upon the fruit and to rest beneath the shade of the lovely trees.
This legend illustrates two views of life. One is to make for oneself a great name --as high and as useless as that obelisk on the highway; the other is to make one's life an oasis where the weary may find sustenance, refreshment and peace.
Others can be characterized by the pronoun "they," which they are accustomed to use. This pronoun expresses the detached and unconcerned view of the idle observer --the philosophy of the unemployed spectator Such individuals are in the habit of using the pronoun "they." "They" do this or that. "They" run the city. "They" are to blame.
The "they" people are to be found everywhere. One sees them watching others at work, and criticizing the plan and the work. They do nothing themselves but criticize. One finds them at institutions complaining about a host of matters which "they," the active workers, are doing or failing to do.
The "they" individuals employ yet another word that identifies them readily--the word "but." They are constantly prepared to "but" almost every new idea or proposal. You say to them that Mr. X is a fine fellow. "Yes," will come the labored reply, "but we don't like the way he talks." You say that this is fine institution. "Yes," will come the stammering response, "but the officers are nor trustworthy, and/or unqualified to lead." Should you in passing note the condition of the weather --that it looks like a fine morning-- the "bucter" will say, "Yes, but it's building up as a scorcher." Thus even the eIements do not escape the fault-finding slings and arrows of the "they" and the "but" practitioners and maligners.
An inscription on one of the doorways of a great college suggests how one is to respond to such individuals. It reads, "They say. What do they say? Let them Say."
How both of these types --the "I" and "they" views of life-- fall short of the "we" spirit which speaks of togetherness, sharing and cooperation! It is the "we" slogan in the home that promotes happiness in the family. It is the "we"' ideal of the team that enables it to win games, and the "we'' doctrine in the Shule chat makes of it a great and inspiring institution.
The "we" ideology saturates the great documents of our American heritage. "We, the people," is an immortal introduction to the Declaration of independence. Contrast that phrase with the infamous boast of Louis XIV of France, "L'etat c'est moi!" "I am the State!" and you will see the vast gulf that separates the "we" of democracy from the "I" of dictatorship and tyranny.
The keeper of an insane asylum was once asked, "Aren't you afraid that these dangerously mad people will one day unite and hurt you and the other attendants?" "No," replied the keeper. "I am not afraid. You see, crazy people never unite on anything."
Ah yes! The "we" spirit is present only in spiritually and emotionally sound minds; it resides only in a morally and ethically healthy society. That is why the pronoun "we" expresses the very essence of Judaism. The great prophets of Israel --the saints and sages, the teachers and scholars of our people-- always spoke the language of "we." The prayers included in the Siddnr and the Machzor are all in the plural. "Bless us," "heal us," "forgive us."
Said a poet,
When you pray say our, not mine or thine;