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You're On the Air!

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Yaakov Salomon

Imagine how careful you'd be if those around you were watching, listening, and analyzing your every word. Guess what? They probably are.

If my picture appeared on CNN tomorrow and was broadcast instantly to hundreds of millions of viewers worldwide, I wonder how many people would recognize me.

Well… let's see. There's my wife, my mother, my in-laws, my brother and my kids (and their spouses), and my dentist (if I'm smiling in the picture). That makes 17. Add in some friends, some patients, a few friendly neighbors and certain blood cousins and other relatives and the total might reach three figures -- not a whole lot of people.

Of course, not everyone is an unrecognizable as me. I remember reading a while back that the words most easily understood in the world were Coca-Cola. And the face most easily identified was that of heavyweight champion Mohammad Ali. (I hope Ronald Reagan didn't feel too bad.)

I haven't seen any recent polls on the topic, but my guess is that the person most universally recognized today is probably Osama bin Laden. The recognition of this mastermind of evil is instant and globally wide-reaching.

One of the most fascinating dynamics of the entire Bin Laden saga is what has happened post 9/11 and a lesson that he might be indirectly teaching us.

More than 3 1/2 years have already passed since that unforgettably horrific morning in Lower Manhattan, D.C., and Shanksville, Pennsylvania. To many, me included, it seems like just yesterday. The sun shone brilliantly that late summer day in shocking disparity to the devastation that would soon be wrought upon the Western world. It took only minutes for hundreds of millions of people to realize that life as we knew it would never again be the same. It wasn't.

The catastrophe and eternal upheaval for the thousands of grieving families is, of course, immeasurable, but the consequences for the rest of the world have been far-reaching, as well. In a very real sense, every one of us has become a virtual hostage to this fiend. It feels as if we will never really sense total safety again. And although most of us no longer leap to our feet and gasp when a loud noise invades our moments of reverie, we are still very much on guard, on edge, and on the lookout.

Truthfully, it baffles the mind. Why should it be this way? No one is totally comfortable in saying it, but with the exception of a few rather feeble and isolated anthrax scares, these shores have been eerily safe and absent of terrorist activity since that dreadful September morning of 2001. Alerts come and go, color codes become elevated and diminished, pronouncements and cautionary directives are issued and are usually ignored, elderly ladies are randomly searched by airport screeners, and cabinet departments are assembled and dismantled, but through it all, all appears to be quiet on the Western front… thank God.

But there is one small blip on the panic screen -- the periodic audio and visual tapes, allegedly recorded by OBL, and released by Al-Jazeera. It seems that he just won't go away. Every so often another tape is mysteriously born and disseminated and that's when the "fun" begins.

Regular programming is interrupted when the "news" breaks that "HE" has spoken. Linguists, speech pattern experts, and intelligence pundits are immediately summoned to lend testimony to the relative veracity of the said tapes.

"It is bin Laden's superb and special Arabic language that is very hard to emulate," says one authority typically. "It is undoubtedly his voice, his style, and the standard examples from history he uses."

More and more spokespeople are often paraded in front of us to offer their sage opinions about the true identity of the voice (or the picture).

And once the consensus is reached that it is indeed OBL who has addressed us, then the main course is served, as the analysis of the "message" ensues. Each and every word is systematically sifted, lifted, picked apart and torn asunder. The nuances, pronunciations, and even the facial expressions of this diabolic puppeteer are discussed, interpreted and re-interpreted.

"Is he really still alive?"

"Did he seem angry?"

"What did he mean when he urged Muslims to 'liberate the Islamic world from the military occupation of the Crusaders'?' "

And so it goes. The color code shifts to red, world-wide security precautions are re-set, and some universal breath holding is dusted off and reinstated for a while.

When you stop and think about the whole episode, it is nothing short of incredible. This warped power monger literally holds the entire civilized world on a short and frayed string. All he needs to do is wake up in the morning and sneeze and the Neilson ratings become totally re-organized. His every utterance is noted and decoded; his every move is feared and focused on. Imagine if he said something that was really important.

We can observe this phenomenon and marvel at his power. We can take note of this trend and laugh at the absurdity of it all. But what we really should do is learn something from it. After all, isn't that the real reason it is happening?

Nearly all of us (a safe, polite way of saying all of us), have had the experience of going to a doctor to check out something that we were worried about -- a nagging cough, a persistent headache, a funny skin discoloration, hair loss etc. More often than not, the doctor examines, asks some stock questions, shrugs and tells you to forget about it.

"It should go away somewhere between 14 days and 2 weeks," is his usual not so funny and hardly reassuring prognosis. "If not, call me and we'll run some tests."

But no matter what his exact words are, most of us leave the office and immediately begin our anxious ruminations -- picking apart everything the doctor said like he had recited the Gospel.

"What does 'should' go away really mean?!"

"Why did he have to qualify it by saying, 'if not'?"

"What kind of 'tests' was he talking about?"

Some people, like doctors, and even more so, like Osama bin Laden, are in a position where every single word they say is so incredibly weighty that people's life plans are directly and supremely linked and effected by them! This is not unlike the innocent reflections from Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan whose off the cuff, cavalier comments about the bond market or the yen, would easily fling world economy into a sudden upswing or a devastating tailspin.

You may prefer to deny your impact on others, but the reality is to many people -- more than you think -- you really are their whole world.

Just pretend, for a moment, that you had that kind of power. Imagine if you were so important (or so feared) that the whole world stopped to hear whatever you were saying. How careful would you be with your choice of words, your tone of voice, your inflection and even eye movements, if you knew that those around you would be watching, listening, recording you, and analyzing you like a hawk.

Well, guess what? They probably are. It might be your spouse, your kids, your roommate or your colleague, but there are people close to you who are undoubtedly deeply affected by the things you say and the words you use. You may not realize it. You may not believe that people take you that seriously. You may prefer to deny your impact on others, but that is the reality.

The applications of this notion are as diverse as the words you use to communicate with. You may pay little mind to how you react to your husband's solution for Sammy's lack of friends, but maybe you should. Dismissing it as "ridiculous," "impractical," or "another one of your brilliant ideas," may be far more hurtful and callous than you realized or intended. And children, even at a very young age, are keenly attuned to how you respond to everything they say -- no matter how silly or inconsequential it may seem.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 37) teaches us that we are all directed to say and believe, "The entire world was created just for me." This is not meant to encourage arrogance and conceit. Rather, it is an enjoinder to help us realize our enormous responsibility to everyone we encounter and to the Jewish people as a whole. To many people -- more than you think -- you really are their whole world.

And Passover seems like the ideal time of year to dedicate, or re-dedicate ourselves to this aspiration. Everything about the Seder seems designed to help us focus on our speech: telling the story of our Exodus, how we describe the miracles, asking questions, featuring the children who must listen AND ask their own questions etc. Even the protagonist of our story, Moses himself, was uneasy about his ability to speak effectively to Pharoah because he was a stutterer!

Indeed, the word Pesach, is actually a compound word -- composed of Peh Sach, which means mouth that speaks. And, of course, the entire evening is centered around a book that walks us through this magical night -- called the Haggadah -- the Hebrew word for telling.

You may never appear on CNN. And you might never be a worshipped sports hero or a fugitive mass murderer. But make no mistake. Your words count. People are listening. Their emotional well-being, their mood and temperament, and even their feelings of self-worth can sometimes hinge on what you say and how you say it.

It is a responsibility of mammoth proportion.

Don't fear it. Embrace it.

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