Vol. XXXVII No. 4 — April 1959

Pronounce or Perish

Matthew W. Hill, PGM

This Short Talk Bulletin is the work of Most Worshipful Brother Matthew W. Hill, past grand master of the Grand Lodge of Washington, and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of that state. This address was first given at the Annual Banquet of the Conference of Grand Secretaries in Washington, D.C., in February 1957, where it was enthusiastically acclaimed. M.W. Theodor Vogel, grand master of the United Grand Lodge of Germany, regarded it as “the climax, the high point, of the meetings in Washington” during National Masonic Week that year.

“Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right.” — Judges 12:6

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Masons are quite familiar with the bloody narrative out of the Old Testament, which describes the slaughter of the Ephraimites at the hands of Jephthah and the Israelites. Nevertheless, to make its significance clear, let me tell the story again in the language of our day.

Jephthah, judge of Israel, had expected the Ephraimites to give him assistance in a war against the Ammonites. The assistance was not forthcoming. Nevertheless, he was victorious. After his victory the Ephraimites said: “We ought to share in the rich spoils of this Ammonitish war.”

And Jephthah said: “You didn’t come when I needed you; you didn’t come when you were expected. Why should we share the spoils with you?”

They said: “All right, we’ll come over and take it.”

It didn’t take much to start a war in those days, but if the Ephraimites were going to come, they had to cross the Jordan into Jephthah’s territory.

So Jephthah had the choice of battleground. After he had his men placed for battle, the Ephraimites began to cross the river. Jephthah executed a flanking movement and got a certain number of his men between the Ephraimites and the river. He took command of all of what the King James Version refers to as the passages — we would probably call them the fords — of the Jordan. His idea was that if he was victorious he did not want his enemies to escape him. He did not want them to get back across the Jordan into their own country. He wanted to cut off all retreat.

Now the Israelites and the Ephraimites were people out of the same cultural background, out of the same racial background, and sometimes were difficult to tell apart. So Jephthah chose a password, a word he knew the Ephraimites had difficulty in pronouncing. Knowing they had difficulty with an sh sound, he chose the word shibboleth, realizing that they would say sibboleth and by that defect indicate that they were enemies.

The battle was fought. Jephthah was successful. The Ephraimites came reeling back in defeat to the Jordan, and there they found the river in the hands of Jephthah’s men. They were asked if they were Ephraimites and they said, “No.”

Then came the important question: “Say now shibboleth.”

And they said: “Sibboleth.” That defect proved them to be enemies, and there fell at that time forty and two thousand of the Ephraimites.

What does that have to do with today? Well, the Ephraimites were confronted with a challenge of pronounce or perish. “Say now shibboleth,” and if they couldn’t say “shibboleth,” they perished. And I have the feeling that we in our generation and this year are confronted with a challenge. Maybe it’s not pronounce or perish, but it comes very close to it. And it isn't a difficult, polysyllabic word like shibboleth. It’s the very short, simple, two-letter personal pronoun, we.

You say you can’t mispronounce the pronoun we phonetically? Perhaps not. But what do we mean when we say “we”? What is the connotation of the term? I think you will find that as you use the word we you are invariably using it as a word that separates you from somebody else. It is “we the Republicans” and “we the Democrats.” It is “we the Grange” and “we the Chamber of Commerce.” It is “we the A.F. of L. and C.I.O.” and "we the National Association of Manufacturers.”

We are separating ourselves from somebody else when we use the personal pronoun we. We are limiting its application. My thesis is that we must learn to pronounce the pronoun we as an all-inclusive term, not something that separates me from you, but something that brings us all together. This is we as it is used in the Preamble of the Constitution of the United States: “We the people of the United States of America,” and not “we the people of a certain race or of a certain color, or of a certain length of residence.”

Even so, we are separating ourselves from somebody else when we say “we the people of the United States of America.” There are people in other parts of the world, too, about whom we need to be concerned, and to understand, and to have included in this pronoun we. I suggest to you today an all-inclusive “we.”

I had difficulty with the twelfth chapter of Judges, and with the idea that people living so close together might have such a difference in pronunciation, until after we moved to Olympia and began traveling quite frequently between Olympia and Tacoma, or Olympia and Seattle. We always had to pass Fort Lewis, and we got into the habit of picking up some of the boys from the Fort who were trying to get into Tacoma or Seattle.

Here they were, all in a uniform of the United States. They were all citizens of the United States. They had all come through the public school system of the United States or its equivalent. They all had the same uniform. They all had the same language. By and large, they had pretty much the same cultural background, at least in the immediate past. And yet, there were marked differences in pronunciation.

Sometimes our passengers would be some of “dese, dem, and dose” boys from Brooklyn. Then sometimes they would be some of the “you all” boys from the Deep South. I remember on one occasion we knew there were some Texas regiments at the Fort, and we picked up some boys obviously from the South. Mrs. Hill asked if they were from Texas, and after a moment’s silence one of them said: “Ma’am, never ask anybody if they are from Texas. If they’re not, they’ll be embarrassed. And if they are, they’ll tell you.” You can tell a down-east Yankee, and we have the Harvard accent. As I say, you can always tell a man from Harvard, but you can’t tell him much.

Thus we have our differences of pronunciation of the same word, so we can understand how those ancient people living so close together could have their differences of pronunciation. But it is not the important thing that we can explain a difference in pronunciation.

If we are going to be concerned with this pronoun we, I think there are certain other words, other pronouns, that we must pronounce first. We must be able to pronounce I before we can pronounce we, and we must pronounce I with a nice sense of balance between humility on one hand and responsibility on the other. When I say “humility,” I don’t mean the inferiority complex; I don’t mean the Charles Dickens’ Uriah Heep type of humility. I mean a humility that is conscious of its tremendous obligation to those who have gone before: to those who have made such an institution as ours possible; to those who have made a nation such as this nation possible; to those who have by sacrifice, by devotion, made it possible for us to enjoy the things that we enjoy today. I mean a humility because of a sense of real obligation; a humility because of our sense of responsibility to Almighty God and a recognition that we, too, are the beneficiaries of the goodness of God; a humility that Kipling expresses in his "Recessional” in the reference to reeking tubes and iron shards; in the final analysis, the importance of a humble and contrite heart. So we need a sense of real humility; and yet we need a sense of responsibility, a sense of our responsibility as individuals for the situations that exist in our own life, in our own community, in our own time, and in our own world.

In these days it is sometimes very easy to give way to a feeling of futility and frustration and say: “Well, it doesn’t make any difference what I say and think and do. I’m only one out of so many million.” I saw a cartoon once in which the central figure was one of these Casper Milquetoast figures sometimes used to represent John Q. Public. Towering over him was the great god Mars, with an atomic bomb in one hand, and in the other a hydrogen bomb with its promise that we may all be cremated. In the background was the lowering cloud of inflation and through it the jagged lightning of industrial strife. The caption was “What Now, Little Man, What Now?”

So sometimes we avoid responsibility; we seek to say that what we say and do is not important. A very great minister has said that we either are part of the problem or we are part of the answer, and I think that is true on any level. If there is a problem within the four walls of your own home, what you say and think and do either makes it more difficult to solve or it aids in the solution. If there is a problem in any organization of which you are a part, what you say and think and do either makes it a more difficult problem or it aids in the solution. It’s true in community life. It’s true in the life of the state and of the nation and of the world. What you say and think and do about the United Nations is important because it is only in this atmosphere that can be created the willingness to understand and to cooperate.

So I must be said with that nice balance of humility and responsibility, a recognition of every individual responsibility. I think we have to pronounce he and she and they with some sense of his and her and their hopes and aims and aspirations.

There is a very interesting story in the Jewish Talmud concerning the selection of the site for King Solomon’s Temple. According to the Talmud, there was a field left by a father to his two sons. The two boys plowed together, they planted together, they cultivated together, they harvested together. And when the harvest was completed, they divided it equally. One took his share to his home at one end of the field; the other to his home at the other end of the field.

The night the harvest was completed, the brother at one end of the field began to ask himself the question: “Was that a fair division of the harvest?” And he came to the conclusion that it was not, because he reasoned that he was unmarried and had no one to support except himself, whereas his brother had a wife and two small sons. Therefore, it was a very selfish thing of him to take half of that harvest when his brother needed a greater share of it. So he went into his storeroom, took all of the sheaves that he could carry, threw them over his shoulder, and started across the field toward his brother’s home.

That night, at the other end of the field, the other brother was asking himself that very same question: “Was that a fair division of the harvest?” And he, too, came to the conclusion that it was not, but for a very different reason. To understand his reason we need to know something of a Jewish custom, of Jewish tradition, of Jewish attitude of mind. This was before the days of old age pensions and social security, and in the Jewish economy it was the responsibility of sons to take care of parents when parents reached the age at which they were no longer economically self-supporting. So he reckoned that he had sons; he had social security as it was reckoned in that time. His brother had no sons. Consequently, he came to the conclusion that it had been very selfish of him to take a half of that harvest when his brother had no security. So he went into his storehouse, took all of the sheaves that he could carry, threw them over his shoulder, and started across the field toward his brother’s home.

They met midway of the field, and each, sensing the thought that had been in the mind of the other, dropped his sheaves. With an Oriental emotionalism that is perhaps unfamiliar to us, they embraced, and the Talmud says that on that soil consecrated with the tears of true brotherhood was erected the Temple of Solomon.

Now I would ask you to note that these brothers did not ask the question: "Did I get all that was coming to me?” That’s the question we ordinarily ask in connection with a business transaction. We may not want more than our share, but we’re always very anxious to be sure that we got all that was coming to us. They were asking the question: “Did my brother get what he was entitled to receive?” In this pronunciation of he and she and they, I think it is important that we have the concept of brotherhood, a concern about our brother to the extent that we ask: “Did he get what he was entitled to receive?”

From this very old illustration in the Talmud I want to come to one that I picked out very recently from a service club magazine. It’s the story of a man who put up a sign, “Puppies for Sale,” and he no sooner had the sign up than there was a small boy standing by wanting to know how much those puppies were going to cost.

The man told him they were pretty good dogs and that he didn’t expect to let any of them go for less than twenty or twenty-five dollars. There was a look of disappointment on the youngster’s face. He said: "I’ve got two dollars and eighty-seven cents; could I look at ’em?”

The man said: “Well, you sure can,” and he called, “Lady,” and whistled. Out of the kennel and down the runway came “Lady,” with four or five little balls of fur rolling along behind her and one lagging considerably.

The boy spotted the lagger and said: “What’s wrong with him?” The man said: “Well, the veterinarian has examined him and he says there is no socket in the right hip. The dog will live, but he’ll never be much of a dog.” The boy said: “That’s the one I want to buy. I’ll give you two dollars and eighty-seven cents right now, and I can pay you fifty cents a month until I get him paid for.”

The man shook his head and said: "No, we’ll make a deal all right, but you don’t want that dog. That dog will never be able to run and jump and play with you. You want one of the other dogs.”

The youngster very matter of factly pulled up the little trouser. There was a brace running up both sides of the leg, a leather kneecap, a badly twisted leg. The youngster said: “You know, I don’t run so well myself, and he'll need somebody that understands him.”

Well, it’s just a boy and a dog, but it s a great idea: the desire to understand, the ability to put ones self in somebody else’s position, and to understand and care.

That is involved in pronouncing he and she and they.

Then I think we have to have something else in that pronoun we. We have to have a recognition not only that we can pronounce we on the horizontal, but that we have to pronounce we on the perpendicular, and that we have to include God in that we if we are going to pronounce it in a way that meets the challenge of our time of pronounce or perish. God must be included in that we.

The prophet Amos was a herder of sheep, a keeper of fruit trees in the garden, a man who preserved plant and animal life. People came to him and said: “Amos, why don’t the people who follow your God seem to be occupying the positions of responsibility; they don’t seem to be accumulating the wealth — how come?”

Amos was a great believer in the certainty of the operation of God’s laws. He answered them with an illustration, which we haven’t improved upon in the intervening centuries, the illustration of a plumbline:

And, behold, the Lord stood upon a wall made by a plumbline, with a plumbline in his hand. And the Lord said unto me, Amos, what seest thou? And I said, a plumbline. Then said the Lord, Behold, I will set a plumbline in the midst of my people Israel; I will not again pass by them anymore. Amos 7:7-8

A plumbline operates in accordance with the law of gravity; it operates from above. I have the feeling that we will not build our own lines solidly and substantially unless we can plumb them with a plumbline of God’s justice. We shall not build a lasting social and economic order unless we can plumb it with a plumbline of God’s justice. We need a recognition of the certainty of God’s laws. We need to realize that you cannot break the Ten Commandments. The jails, the penitentiaries, the mental institutions are filled with people whom the Ten Commandments have broken, but we do not break God’s laws.

We need something of the faith in God in this we of ours that George VI of England voiced on his 1939 New Year’s Day broadcast, the first around-the-world broadcast of which I have recollection. England was backed against the wall, not yet knowing what the future might hold, and the United States was not yet in the war. On that New Year’s Day, speaking around the world to all of those who were then part of the British Empire, the King of England told, in a little allegory, of a man who stood at the gate of the year and wanted a light in order that he might see his way into the unknown: “And then there came a voice saying put your hand into the hand of God, and step forth into the darkness, and that is better than the light and safer than a known way.” That was a great thought in that time of crisis so far as England was concerned, when there was little the people could do but put their hands into the hand of God and go forward into the darkness.

Well, that’s it. Very simply, very briefly, may I summarize: The Ephraimites were confronted with a challenge, pronounce or perish: "Say now shibboleth.” They couldn’t say shibboleth, and it cost them their lives. We also are confronted with a challenge, pronounce or perish, not shibboleth, but we. Can we pronounce it? Can we with our learning and with our understanding say we and mean we as an all-inclusive term? Can we say I with a sense of balance, of humility and responsibility? Can we say he and she and they with some sense of their hopes, their pains, their aspirations? And can we say it with a consciousness that God is included in that we?

Every life is tested by its accent, not so much of the Ups as of the heart. As Jesus said, “Not every one who sayeth unto me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” Matthew 7:21

Only as our lives express a harmony with our words can we really pronounce that “we” to save ourselves from the spiritual destruction that lies in wait at the Jordans of life.

Pronounce or perish is still a crucial challenge. God grant that we “frame to pronounce it right”!

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