אֲדֹנָי שְׂפָתַי תִּפְתָּח וּפִי יַגִּיד תְּהִלָּתֶךָ.
Adonai open up my lips that my mouth may declare Your praise.
This line begins the Amidah section of our prayer service. I used to wonder why we were praying for the ability to pray, especially when this line comes halfway through the service. I think it’s because the rabbis who wrote our prayers were keenly aware of the power of speech. After all, our Torah teaches that God spoke the world into being and formed the first human with God’s breath. The Amidah concludes with a prayer that begins “My God, guard my speech from negativity and my lips from deception.”
The message seems clear: our words matter. We have the agency to impact the world for better or worse through our speech, so we ought to pay attention to what we are saying and use our speech for good.
I remember being a high school student and struggling with the tension of wanting to engage in tikkun olam, making the world better, but feeling the vastness of the worlds’ problems and wondering how one person could really make a difference. The wisdom of Judaism empowers us as individuals and calls us to action. Concern for impact is not a valid excuse in Judaism for disengaging from the world’s problems.
This past January, Rabbi Feder and I accompanied four of our teens to Washington, D.C. for a social justice seminar with the Religious Action Center (RAC): Rebecca Ezersky, Lana Feltsman, Jayce Gispan, and Max Bennett. Over the course of four days, our teens joined almost 500 other teens from around the country to learn about issues ranging from the environment to racial justice, Reform Judaism’s stance on these moral issues and how to be an advocate for the causes we passionately care about. On Monday morning, we visited the offices of our congressmen and congresswomen where our teens delivered speeches that they wrote and prepared on the social justice issue of their choice.
Some of the teens wondered how much of an impact their speeches really have on the offices of our nation’s leaders. The RAC shared stories they have heard from politicians who report that our teens often speak more articulately and professionally than paid lobbyists. They also shared a voicemail from Elizabeth Warren, thanking teens from the RAC for coming to her office and emphasizing the importance of their voice in our democratic nation. Finally, they shared the story of a Senator who was so impressed by one of the teen participants of this seminar that he asked permission to read the teen’s speech on the floor of the Senate.
The Religious Action Center does an amazing job running a smooth weekend packed with museum visits, Shabbat services, entertainment, and learning. But I think the element that makes the RAC social justice seminar so successful is the way they empower our teens and pass on the wisdom of our tradition, that our individual voices do matter, and we that we have the awesome responsibility to use our speech to better the world.