THE POWER OF WORDS BY RUZ GULKO
It seems like so long since Yom Kippur, but I am still full of warm and
happy memories. I miss everyone and hope to get back there soon!
I thought I’d send along the sermon I might have done, from one I did deliver several years back on Y”K. Feel free to publish it in the Ram’s Horn, or not – I just thought it’d be nice to try to send along a teaching
of some kind each month as a little reminder and offering.
All the best,
“Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me.” Who hasn’t heard this schoolyard saying? Often offered by consoling adults to insulted children, it contains a literal truth but offers little comfort. All of us, I’m sure, can recall only too vividly the times, both as a child and as an adult, when someone’s words wounded us so deeply that just in remembering, we are flooded with intense pain, shame, and rage.
The Biblical Hebrew root for both “thing” and “word” is the same – Daled/Vet/Resh. Their common origin is extremely telling. Reading through the Torah, so many layers of meaning can emerge when we look at both understandings. The name of the fifth book of Torah, Deuteronomy in English, is D’vareem in Hebrew – does it mean Things or Words? We generally think of this book as the collection of Moshe’s farewell exhortations, his parting words. But we are, I believe, also to understand that with these words, we are to shape the things we do – our deeds. In the book of B’raisheet, Genesis, we read that God created the world by speaking. No pointing of divine digits or hurling of lightning bolts, but rather: “Let there be…. Let the sea/sky/earth bring forth…. “
We call the Ten Commandments in Hebrew “Aseret haDeebrot”- literally, the 10 Words, the 10 Sayings. How many of those 10 are about speech? There are at least two: swearing falsely by God’s name and speaking false testimony about someone. We can certainly agree that in honouring parents, speech is a large factor as well. In the morning liturgy we read: “Barukh ShehAmar…Blessed is the One who spoke, and the world came into existence.” In the brakhah for seeing a rainbow we remind ourselves that God is always faithful to God’s word.
“Sticks & stones…” God created the world by speaking, by naming things. What have you created with your words? What have you destroyed with your words? Here’s a sample:
I love you.
I’m proud of you.
You make me sick.
I couldn’t have done it without you.
Get the hell away from me.
Let me help.
Putting on some weight, aren’t we, dear?
You’re the best mommy/daddy/friend in the whole world.
In my work with survivors of domestic violence, I hear over and over from these women that the constant verbal assault on their self-esteem left the deepest scars of all. Thank God, most of us are not dealing with this level of nightmare and humiliation in our lives. But all of us have been victims of hurtful speech, and all of us have hurt others with our words. My father admonished us often: “Taste your words!” It was great advice then, and continues to be, for me, the litmus test of most of what comes out of my mouth.
In the Talmud we learn that to embarrass or shame someone in public was practically as bad as killing them, for every time they remembered the “bushah”, the shame, they would feel like dying, or their soul would die a little bit. “Lashon HaRah” – evil language, or speech – literally, tongue – is one of the most harshly condemned sins in our tradition. Our Rabbis likened it to leprosy, and preached that the latter was a punishment for the former. They even caution us not to praise someone in a situation where someone hearing us would be tempted to counter the praise or say something nasty in response.
Our tradition teaches the importance of Kashrut – the ritual laws surrounding the proper way of eating, eating that which is kosher – fitting – and properly prepared. In Judaism, there is also a Kashrut of speech for us, watching just as carefully what comes out of our mouths as we do that which goes in.
“Sticks & stones….” What will you “break” with your words? What will you create with your words? As we humble ourselves before God on this holiest night of the year, offering our words of repentance and our promises to do better, let’s realize that it is to those created in the Divine Image that we really owe words of contrition, reassurance, and respect. I’m sorry. You’re right. I love you. This year, let’s be as fully present as possible, using our speech to light and to lighten each other’s way in an often frightening, painful world. Then our “devareem” – our words”, will flow righteously into our “devareem – the “things” we create. May we all create for ourselves, for our loved ones, and for our communities, a world of justice, compassion, and shalom.