Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Butter, the metaphorical toxin, with apologies to Julia Child

In Uncategorized on August 16, 2009 at 3:34 pm

I have always been a firm believer in my own kind of alternative medicine. For sedation, when sleep may evade, my drug of choice is a mystery novel. Mostly, they are mediocre and have me asleep within a half an hour. On occasion, these “whodunits” will have the opposite effect, but at least I was entertained.

Often novels open up with a famous quotation meant to foreshadow the essence of the book. This time, the quotation alone was enough to get me out of bed and send me on a two hour odyssey of discovery. The verse in question was the twenty second verse from the fifty-fifth Psalm:

The words of his mouth were smoother than butter, but war was in his heart.

Midrash Tehilim assumes that the author King David is referring to the threat posed to his Kingdom by his son Absalom, and the treachery of their mutual advisor Achitophal whose words were “smoother than butter”.
The Hebrew word for butter in this context is מחמאות and, to my knowledge, it is the only time it appears in Tanakh. In modern Hebrew, Machma’ah means a “compliment” without the pejorative connotation indicated in the verse. Compliments are suspect in Jewish tradition because they provide openings for negative comments.
For instance, I would say that Reuben is a wonderful dancer which allows someone to say, but his breath could knock a buzzard off a manure pile. Had I not offered the compliment, there would have been no opportunity to speak of Reuben’s unfortunate halitosis.
Much of what passes for debate on health care is based on the suspicion that our silver tongued President has nefarious designs that are the opposite of what he is saying. We are being “buttered up”–a phrase which may very well come from this very verse–only to be consumed by death panels, interminable lines for urgent care under Dickensian conditions, and rationing. These complaints, however, seem to emerge from an agenda that has little in common with these fears. Certainly, duplicity is familiar territory for every politician. Even the President rations truth in the doses he deigns appropriate for we, the rabble.
More interesting is the understanding that the Biblical origin of מחמאות indicates that compliments are never seen as being free from ulterior motives and are intrinsically tainted with the disingenuous stain of hypocrisy. The fact that we crave them nonetheless says that we all want others to believe the lie about ourselves, especially when being praised by others.
As Rosh Chodesh Elul approaches, this is not the time to indulge in flattery, but in the painstaking scrutiny that can lead to change and possibly transformation. For more reasons than one, it is time to remove the “butter” from our spiritual recipes and see ourselves as clearly as we can.
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