In Judaism, words matter. That’s not to say they don’t matter elsewhere. Of course they do. Not surprisingly though, in Judaism people have been talking and writing about the power of words for a very long time, and yes, I do note the irony of talking and writing about talking and writing.
Let’s start with this past week’s parsha, or Torah portion. It’s called Be’ha’alot’cha. That’s a mouthful by itself. By the way, it means, “When you lift (or raise),” which referred in this instance to lifting the menorah (candelabra). Perhaps the most significant event in this parsha occurs when Aaron and Miriam, the brother and sister of Moses, speak ill of him behind his back. In other words, they’re gossiping. So the story goes, God punishes Miriam for this behavior by giving her leprosy, which only is cured when Moses intervenes on her behalf, saying, “O, God, pray heal her.”
Stemming from this story, we are instructed not to speak ill of another, and as a matter of fact, traditional Jews pray daily asking for help not to engage in this behavior. A really well known midrash (rabbinical story told to explain, amplify, or expand the content of the Torah) tells the story of a man who went through a village speaking ill of the rabbi there. Eventually he felt bad about his behavior and came to the rabbi, told him what he had done and asked for forgiveness. The rabbi accepted the apology but asked the man as penance to take some feather pillows and tear them open in his yard. This he did, but when he returned to the rabbi to tell him he had done his penance, the rabbi said he now needed to gather up all the feathers. The man said that was impossible to do, whereupon the rabbi said that the negative words he had spoken were just like those feathers, quite impossible to retrieve once spoken.
Interestingly, we can speak ill of another or well of another when they’re not in our presence, and either way, in fact it still amounts to gossip. The Jewish orientation tends towards the goal of eliminating speech that is negative or derogatory, but an interesting exercise to try some time is spending an entire day speaking only about people in whose presence you find yourself. Not so easy. Try it.
In Judaism, however, the idea of the power of words goes way beyond gossip. Each evening we say a prayer acknowledging that the creative power of the universe (God, if you prefer) formed the evening with words. What a concept! That God created evening by speaking it into being. In fact, there is a stream of thought in Judaism that argues that the entire world, yea the entire universe and even universes, were created by speaking them into being. This blog post could easily become a treatise on metaphysics at this point, but let’s not go there.
Instead I would just emphasize that we can create worlds of our own with words. We speak things into being all the time. We say kind and loving things to partners, spouses, children, friends, neighbors, random people we meet on the street, and all of a sudden, the quality of the world changes. We utter a vow aloud, either alone or in the presence of others, and an idea comes into being and starts to manifest in the world around us, changing that world forever, arguably making the world a different world. Likewise, we can speak from a place of fear or anger and express ideas that are excluding, demeaning, hate-filled, and these too will create a new and ugly world. We get to choose what we say; we have to be aware that when we speak, we do in fact create a world around us, and like those feathers, it’s pretty much impossible to take back what we’ve said. We can attempt to transcend what we’ve uttered that we now regret, but we can’t pretend it was never said.