Making words count: Understanding the power of what comes out of our mouths

Rabbi Craig Marantz

By Rabbi Craig Marantz, Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1−3:22)

Last week, on the cusp of Shabbat, I enjoyed a moment with my eidah (unit) at Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute in Oconomowoc, WI, where I am a member of the segel (faculty). I often find summer camp is an amazing place for our community of children, young adults, and everyone else present to immerse ourselves in meaningful Jewish engagement — our recent Shabbat experience no exception. As we stood in a circle on a hill in the warm sunshine, I searched for words that might initiate our Shabbat with kavanah, with intentionality.

Happily, I turned to the inspiration of a recent celebration for our retiring Associate Director Susan Alexander. There we witnessed the completion of a Torah, written to honor Susan’s wonderful service to OSRUI all these years. And, Rabbi Michael Weinberg, our emcee, invoked the enduring words of Deuteronomy 31:19:  “And now, write for yourselves this song, and teach it to the Children of Israel. Place it into their mouths, in order that this song will be for Me as a witness for the children of Israel.”

As you may know, this precious teaching constitutes the 613th mitzvah, the responsibility for every Jew to write a Torah scroll. How amazing in a way we were all a part of this mitzvah that day. Thank G-d! Rabbi Yochanan Nathan, the sofer (scribe) underscored (and I paraphrase) the power of Torah’s very letter, no less its words, to lift us to discernment, action, and blessing. We predicate our daily effort at being a force for good on our holy texts and their powerful language — lovingly made with sacred otiyot (letters) and devarim (words).

So in this spirit, I began by explaining to my camp community that from the midbar, from the very wilderness itself, the d’var went forth. “Look how similar the words are!” I explained. They share a similar shoresh (root). “You can pull a d’var right out of the midbar (desert).” Of course, this brought to mind how from the Sinai desert, the Torah went forth.

Now, to G-d, I continued, every letter of Torah is important; and every word is, too. But how to give Torah proper voice, so Moses and the people could actually hear the Torah and love it and live by it? According to the midrash, this was a real quandary for the Holy One of Blessing. In Shemot Rabbah 45:5-6, G-d worries a loud voice will intimidate Moses, and a soft voice will not summon Moshe’s full attention and respect. So G-d decides to communicate in the comforting voice of a parent, and Moses responds with enthusiasm. By the way, It is noteworthy that author Ellen Frankel, in her ‘Five Books of Miriam’ and commenting on this week’s parsha Devarim, also portrays G-d as a loving parent. Here, Miriam tells the people that Moses reminds the people that G-d “will fight for you, as he did for you in Egypt, before your very eyes” (Deuteronomy 1:30).

Next, to demonstrate Moshe’s positive response to G-d, I turned to the 19th century Gerer Rebbe.  In his well-known work, the Sefas Emes, the Rebbe comments that the power of the spoken word is holy.  And, the Torah, full of sacred words, teaches people how to speak — with, I would add derech eretz, with courtesy and community-mindedness and with kavod, with respect. And so Moses, our teacher, busied himself with these words of Torah — he infused them in his voice, in Hebrew language, and, most importantly, in his actions — especially guarding against using his voice and his language in a hurtful way…without derech eretz, without kavod.

And so I concluded my reflection Friday night.

What kind of Torah are we going to write in the coming days? In the coming year? During the rest of our lives? What specific letters will we write?  What words will we utter? And with what tried and true and morally courageous voice? What commitments will we make?  What  actions will we enact? How will we ensure we are a force for good? How will we guarantee we fill the world with mentschlikeit?

I am reminded of one of my favorite lines in Harry Potter: “Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic. Capable of both inflicting injury, and remedying it.” I like this line because its wisdom reminds me of what I think most of us already know about the ineluctable, unavoidable power of words. Words create. Words destroy. Words heal. Words hurt. Words champion. Words trivialize. Words uplift. Words diminish. Words include. Words alienate. Words enlighten. Words darken. Words are…the most powerful force available to us. We can choose to voice our words constructively or destructively, with words of empowerment or words of disenfranchisement.

Built betzelem Elohim, in G-d’s image, we are endowed with the extraordinary capacity to communicate with words. They say human speech is a faint echo of the language of G-d, and to abuse and corrupt it is to assault the essence of our being. But to use our right words as a force for good is to fulfill our partnership with G-d, shaping a reality that brings untold blessing. 

Today, tomorrow, and l’dor vador, throughout the generations, whenever we embrace Torah,  we live a Judaism marked by the intergenerational transmission of sacred verbal content — ideas about the wisdom of G-d’s love and judgment, the impact of human choices and the pursuit of life and blessing — all made real by the transformative words that compose them, words of the Covenant for which grandparents and parents and children and all members of our community stand at special attention at Sinai ready to receive.

It seems so fitting that we now move into the Sefer Devarim, the Book of Words.  For the foreseeable future, we will witness the power of words to make our covenant real — words of instruction accessible and not beyond reach, words discernible and not too baffling; words that shape good choices and enduring blessings; words that help us come home to our one and only  G-d, to our highest spiritual character, to a world healed by our acts of gemilut chasadim (lovingkindness and grace).

Words always count, this moment of Torah reminds us. As will the upcoming High Holy Days. Tefillah, our words of prayer and introspection; vidui, our words of confession; hitnatzlut, our words of apology; Selicha, our words of forgiveness — all these important words animate the actual steps of Teshuvah — of turning back to that simple, radiant divine light of Creation — the one that gives us life and beckons us home like a porch light on a dark night…to an enduring place of wholeness and healing. Kain yehi ratzon! May it be G-d’s will.

Rabbi Craig Marantz is rabbi of Emanuel Congregation.

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