From this week’s Torah portion: You have affirmed this day that the Lord is your God…and God has affirmed this day that you are His treasured people. (Deuteronomy 26:17-18)
The word ‘affirmed’ in the verses above is but one of many myriad translations of the Hebrew. Everything from ‘declared’, ‘recognized’, ‘chosen’, ‘betrothed’. The Hebrew is, however, a form of the verb ‘to say’ or ‘to speak.’ The same word that is used again and again in the account of creation: “And God said ‘Let there be… and there was.”
In Judaism, we are reminded again and again that words have power. They have the capacity to define, to name, to clarify, to ambiguate, to call into being and to do great damage. As we approach the High Holy Days, we are asked to reflect on how well we have used the awesome power and potential of our words.
Numerous are the rabbinic aphorisms that warn us about words. “Words are like an arrow shot from the bow. Once loosed into the world they cannot be recalled.” “So powerful is the tongue that it is kept behind two gates, the teeth and the lips. Best to keep both gates locked.”
The full Yom Kippur confessional lists fifty-four categories of transgression. Sins of speech figure prominently on that list. Swearing falsely. Gossip. Slander. Misrepresentation. The list is a long one.
In the past year, I cannot think of one occasion in which I did bodily harm to another human being, but I can recall occasions when my injudicious words wounded another person and others when my failure to speak a word of counsel or comfort brought an additional unintended measure of pain. I assume that I am not alone in this regard.
For the sin of words spoken and unspoken, we are counseled to seek and ask forgiveness. In a heated moment, we have all said things we regret. Yet it is through the very same agency of speech that we can also frame an apology and attempt a reconciliation with the other. With the words we speak we can encourage, support, hearten and cheer. But sadly, there are so very many nowadays who still long for that hoped for word of praise, affirmation, acceptance or love – words never received but rightly expected from those to whom they were bound by the closest of family ties. Silence is not always golden.
Under the wedding canopy, bride and groom pledge themselves to one another and create a new household as they speak the words that bind their lives together. The Biblical verses cited above also highlight the power of speech to fashion and bind into being. The affirmation - the ‘speaking’ of words one to the other – creates a relationship, a commitment, a covenant between God and Israel. The same holds true for any community. The way we speak to or withhold words from one another - on the sidewalk, in the grocery store, over the phone or through the internet – will determine in large part what kind of world we will live in and help to create.
May that world be one of blessing where the words of our mouth and the mediations of our heart bind us together in relationships of mutual caring, concern and respect.