Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Despite wanting to maintain a policy of neutrality, President Woodrow Wilson was finally compelled by circumstances to ask Congress to declare war on Germany in April 1917. However, since the war was still unpopular in many circles, and at the time the United States had more of a national constabulary than an actual army, the government had to recruit and train millions of soldiers before we could turn the tables in the war.

In an effort to boost support for the war and increase the soldiers’ commitment to their mission, Wilson approached journalist George Creel and asked him to direct a public relations initiative. Creel became head of the Committee of Public Information (CPI). For the next year and a half, Creel and his organization framed the war as a crusade against tyranny and flooded the media with articles, posters and newsreels. However, Creel realized early on that this would not suffice. In 1917, the CPI recruited their own little army of patriotic speakers to circulate around the country delivering speeches in strong support of the war. These men became known as the “Four Minute Men.” Creel was insistent that no speech last longer than four minutes, what he estimated to be the average person’s attention span.

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In the eighteen months that the “Four Minute Men” operated, 75,000 speakers gave approximately seven million speeches in 5,000 cities. They were heard by over three hundred million people. (This number includes people who heard multiple speeches.) In order to facilitate the most effective speeches possible, the Creel Commission issued a bulletin on May 22, 1917 with, among others, the following pointers:

“The speech must not be longer than four minutes, which means there is not time for a single wasted word.”

“Divide your speech carefully into certain divisions, say 15 seconds for final appeal… 15 seconds for opening words…”

“Get your friends to criticize you pitilessly…”

“Don’t yield to inspiration of the moment…to depart from your speech outline… If your speech has been carefully prepared to fill four minutes, you cannot add anything without taking away something of serious importance.”

The CPI tailored the speakers to their audiences. For example, in New York City there were Yiddish-speaking “Four Minute Men.” Joseph Thomas, who had been the chairman of the New York City “Four Minute Men” wrote: “At the present time the Jewish section is operating in 30 theaters, sending speakers to each twice a week. Among these are all the large Jewish playhouses of the city, each one of which has an average attendance of 2,000 at a performance. In this way we are reaching about 25,000 people per week… Both Yiddish and English are used in accordance with the character of the audience.”

Oddly enough, the most critical ingredient for a successful speech is not mentioned in the instructions, namely, to believe in the message and be passionate about the cause. My guess is that this omission does not mean it wasn’t required, rather it reflects how obvious it must have been, so that it wasn’t necessary to spell it out.

The necessity of passionate belief in one’s message helps us understand a seemingly enigmatic verse in this week’s Torah reading. Near the end of the tochacha (rebuke), the Torah states (26:40-41): “And they will confess their sins and the sins of their fathers for their treachery and for their walking with Me with happenstance. I will therefore act with them in an happenstance manner and bring them to the land of their enemies…” Many commentators ask why G-d responds so harshly in verse 41 to what was recorded in verse 40? After all, verse 40 relates that Bnei Yisrael will confess their sins in the future. This would seem to be a good thing.

The Ketav Sofer explains that although the verse states that Bnei Yisrael will confess their sins, a careful reading of the verse exposes a deficiency in their confession. Bnei Yisrael’s confession in verse 40 is incomplete. In the first part of the verse they confess not only their sins but their fathers’ sins. They do so to lessen their own culpability by arguing that their own sinning was caused by their upbringing. The fact that their parents sinned influenced them to sin – G-d should take this into consideration. In the latter part of the pasuk they confess the sins they transgressed casually without intention. This too lessens their culpability – they are essentially arguing that they sinned at the spur of the moment, not because of intentional forethought. Such confessions are almost non-starters. True repentance requires a confession that enables the sinner to focus totally on his own errors.

The Chafetz Chaim suggests the following answer: The Torah in verse 40 only mentions that Bnei Yisrael will confess. It does not mention that they will actually change their ways. Confession without future commitment is not proper repentance. Therefore, G-d responds that He will act in kind and deal with them in a casual and incomplete way.

The common denominator between both these explanations is that Bnei Yisrael’s confession, while technically and mechanically good, lacks authenticity, sincerity and passion. Such a confession does not accomplish all that much. Like the “Four Minute Men,” if you want your words to be meaningful to others and impact them, you have to make sure that they are meaningful to you.

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