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Words Matter

There’s a Hasidic story about a man who regretted the hateful words he said and finally wanted to change. He turned to his rabbi and asked how to repent. The rabbi told him to take his pillowcase and bring it into the middle of the forest and tear it open. He did just as the rabbi commanded. As he tore open the fabric, feathers flew everywhere. A gust of wind carried the feathers so far, the man could no longer see them. He returned to his rabbi, having completed the task, and feeling good. “Now go collect all the feathers and put them back in the pillow,” the rabbi said. The man knew that this was an impossible task, and learned the impact of his hateful words.

At the very end of Parashat Vayera, we read of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac. Chapter 22 of Genesis begins

 V’yehi achar Hadvarim Haeleh, And it came to pass, after these things.

Most assume this is like the scrolling words at the beginning of a Star Wars film. They are meant to fill you in on what happened immediately prior to this narrative. They are meant to link the stories of the expulsion of Ishmael and Hagar, and Abraham’s conversations with Abimelech to this commandment to kill his son.

But the Hebrew word Devarim, means more than just “things.” It also means “words” and that is how the classical biblical commentator Rashi reads this verse. After these words were said, this happened. Rashi offers two midrashim, two rabbinic interpretations, to explain what words were said. First he suggests that these were the words of the Adversary, the celestial being that was God’s enemy, meant to challenge God. The Adversary said that Abraham wasn’t “devout enough” and wouldn’t even sacrifice those that he loved if God commanded him to do so, leading to this test by God. Second, Rashi suggests that these were words between brothers Ishmael and Isaac. Ishmael was giving Isaac a hard time because he was circumcised at only eight days old, while Ishmael went through the pain of being circumcised at thirteen years old. Giving his brother a hard time, Ishmael challenged Isaac to experience pain to show his commitment to God.

No matter the words that were said that led to the binding of Isaac narrative, we are reminded that words matter. Words lead to action. This has been on my mind as bombs were sent to news networks, Democratic party leaders, and financial supporters of Democratic candidates, after the President referred to them as enemies of the state. This was on my mind all last night, following the mass shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and seeing the President speak – and tweet – time and time again using the word “globalist,” a dog whistle Anti-Semitic slur.

The Anti-Defamation League said that this weekend’s mass shooting at Tree of Life synagogue was likely the largest mass killing of Jews in US History. They regularly speak of the escalation of hate. They teach that words of bias are at the bottom of the pyramid of hate, but that eventually leads to bias motivated violence. Words matter.

Psalm 120 says that words are like sharp arrows, like smoldering coals. Midrash explains that they are like arrows because an individual can stand in one place and his words can still harm another, no matter how far away. And they are like coals because even when the outer parts of the coal have turned to ash, the inner embers still burn. Our words do damage long after we have even forgotten what words we’ve said.

And some time after these words, a terrible action happened.

Abraham acted, without even realizing how terrible his action was. Some argue that he failed the test by participating in such an act of violence. He was so focused on the act that he couldn’t even hear an angel of God calling out to him telling him to stop. That angel of God had to intervene. Midrash even says that the angel grabbed his hand and had him slaughter a ram caught in the thickets to prevent him from harming his son. Words did not cause his action, but they led to his action.

Let us think before we speak. Lest, like arrows or coals, our words cause serious harm to one another.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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The Power of Words

This past Shabbat, we began reading the book of Deuteronomy, Sefer Devarim. Parashat Devarim, the first Torah portion of the final book of the Torah, begins with the following statement:

Eleh Devarim Asher Diber Moshe El Kol Yisrael

These are the Words that Moses spoke to all of Israel.

This Torah portion begins Moses’ final speech to the people of Israel. The entire book of Deuteronomy is essentially a recounting of the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness and Moses’ role and relationship during that journey. However, we must still ask ourselves, how is it possible that Moses shared these words with all of Israel? The text does not say with the Children of Israel or the People of Israel. It specifically notes that Moses’ spoke these words to every single individual associated with the people of Israel.

This would be an unattainable task by any individual, speaking to hundreds of thousands, but considering Moses’ old age and frail state, as well as his speech impediment and fear of public speaking, the possibility of him sharing his words with all of Israel is rather far-fetched. So then, how is it possible that Moses’ words reached all of the People of Israel? The answer to that question lies in the power of words.

mouthspeakingWe often think that when we speak to someone, our words only impact that individual, but our words have a far greater ripple effect. When we speak, and share our words with the world, they are ultimately felt by the entire world. Our words are passed on, from conversation to conversation, from individual to individual. Like a game of telephone, our words have an impact. Moses may have only been speaking to a select few, but they shared his words with others who in turn, shared his words as well. Moses spoke these words to all of Israel because ultimately, his words impacted all of Israel.

The same can be said about our words. Do we ever stop to think about the power of our own words? Do we realize how many people are impacted by our words? When we speak, are we speaking words of love or words of hate? Are our words promoting a world of peace where we embrace the other or a world that further divides us? When we share our words, we do not realize the impact of those words. We do not realize how many will hear our words.

As we conclude the mournful day of Tisha B’Av, let us take into account the lessons of this fast day. Rabbinic tradition (Bab. Tal. Mes. Yoma 9b) teaches that sinat chinam, that senseless hatred, destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and subsequently, the holy city as well. Senseless hatred is speaking ill will about another. Senseless hatred is preaching words of hatred and bigotry, words of misogyny, homophobia, racism, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism. Senseless hatred is forget that Divine spark within each individual, refusing to recognize that we are each made in God’s image. Senseless hatred is using our words to curse this world instead of blessing this world.

Our words have great power. Let us keep in mind the power of our words and use our words to teach love. Let us ensure that our words are not catalysts for senseless hatred. Instead, let our words create sparks of unconditional love.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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