By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman
Words give us joy, laughter, and tears—sometimes all at once.
I once remarked to my father, of blessed memory, that he seemed to save too many newspaper and magazine clippings, some of them going back decades in time. My father responded, “What can I do?? I love words.” I now realize that I must have inherited this love from him. I love words and the paths that they lead me on. I love playing with words, listening to their rhythms and rhymes. I love figuring out how words evolved through the ages and how they arrived at the meaning they hold for us today.
Personally, I love puns and word play. One of my favorite passages in all literature is from Hamlet, Shakespeare’s play about the man who sought justice by means of words. In Act II, Hamlet is reading a book when he encounters Polonius, chief counselor to the king. When Polonius asks Hamlet what he is reading, the prince answers, “Words, words, words.” He then goes on to engages Polonius in some clever and witty wordplay, twisting, turning and tweaking the words Polonius speaks, until Polonius comes to believe that Hamlet has lost his mind. When you take the meaning out of words, Shakespeare seems to tell us, there is nothing left but chaos and madness. When communication breaks down, civilization fails.
Words can turn empty and meaningless. They can become false and turn into lies. And words can be vicious and hurtful, when they are filled with wicked intent and used to evil purposes.
We first learn of the power of words in the Torah’s story of Creation. It is with words, after all, that the world is created. The Big Bang may have brought matter into being, but it is with words, “Let there be light,” that God brings order into the chaos. In chapter 2 of Genesis, God shares this creative power with human beings, not by giving us fire (as in other mythological stories) but rather by giving us the gift of language. By commanding Adam to give animals the names by which they will be known for all time, God empowers all human beings to catalogue and categorize the world around us, to bring purpose and order to the chaos we perceive, to shape and reshape reality in our own image, according to our own knowledge and understanding.
But just as words can create, so can they also destroy. Only a few paragraphs later, in chapter four of the book of Genesis, Cain and Abel, the first set of siblings in the world, have words with one another. We never learn exactly what was said, but whatever it was, the words were forceful enough to lead Cain to kill his brother Abel, the first murder in recorded human history.
As the Good Book says (Proverbs 18:21): death and life are in the power of the tongue.
Little has changed in the millennia since Creation. Today words can still create, teach and inspire; and they can still also destroy, hurt and leave behind deep scars.
Maybe it’s because of the anonymity associated with social media, or maybe because of the power Facebook has given us to judge others quickly and without much thinking—with a simple emoji, with a thumbs up or a thumbs down; or maybe it’s because of MTV and other facets of pop culture, which cater to our baser instincts. Whatever the reason, in the past few years we have seen vile words, words meant to hurt, mock and insult, become the new norm. Even the recent race for the highest and most prestigious office in the world—the Presidency of the United States of America—became a disgusting display of indecency, dishonesty and bullying.
Then, in the wake of the elections, new words appeared—Alt-Right, Alt-Left, the Antifa—words that shed light not only on the deep social, economic and racial rifts that are tearing our nation apart, but also on what the extremists on both sides have in common: hatred, prejudice, and—yes, you guessed it—anti-Semitism.
After Charlottesville, the White House issued words that seemed to show moral equivalency, words that obfuscated the difference between prejudice and tolerance, between hatred and acceptance. Later statements tried to back off from this failure of vision and leadership, but something was still missing. Amidst all the tumult, finger-pointing and shouting, not a single word of apology, not a single “I’m sorry” was spoken—not for Heather Heyer, whose life was so cruelly cut short in Charlottesville; not for the nineteen who were wounded and injured by the man who deliberately rammed his car into the counter-protestors; nor for the thousands and thousands all over the world, whose traumas were reawakened by the once-again-rising specter of racism, misogyny, homophobia and anti-Semitism. A shocking silence.
But there WAS response. It came from the streets, as in Boston, where, a week after Charlottesville, forty thousand people marched across town and gathered at the Boston Common to drown out the voices of bigotry and prejudice. Response came from other cities as well, where people came out to protest against the hatred.
Response is also found in our machzorim, our holiday prayer books. Here we find words that our people have called holy: Words that teach us how to love one another; words that instruct us to act with charity and compassion; words that remind us that saying “I’m sorry” doesn’t make you less of a man, and that to forgive actually makes you more like God. Here we learn about humility, and about the genius implanted within each and every human being, the unique challenge given each of us by God, and the opportunity we all have to participate in tikkun ‘olam, the repair of our world.
The central image of Rosh Ha-Shana is Sefer ha-chayim, the Book of Life. In this book, we are told, our life story writes itself. Each word we think, utter or act upon is registered on its pages. But then, so are the many lost opportunities, the many missed chances to make it a good story, to imbue it with purpose and meaning, to give it a happy ending.
As we go through the next 10 days, reflecting upon our life and the direction it’s going in, let us remember that until the last day, until our last breath, we have the power to repent, to turn back, to get back on the right path. Words do have power—but we have power over the words we use to shape our lives and the world around us.
Pen in hand, let us take control of our life-story and make sure it turns out right. One day at a time, one breath at a time, one kind word at a time. The story is ours to write, and today we get to begin a new chapter.
L’shanah tova tikatveivu—may we all be inscribed in the Book of Life for a year of goodness, of peace, of life, love, health and prosperity. Amen.