Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk

We're in the midst of the Presidential Election Campaign (Doesn't it seem like we're always in the midst of a presidential election campaign?), and the speeches are flying back and forth. Never was so much said by so many signifying so little. It's like the words don't matter anymore. Veracity and accuracy are seemingly irrelevant. One supposed news station (Hint: It rhymes with Sox) was 'mostly' to 'totally false' ('pants on fire') in 59% of assertions made by their personalities and their pundit guests, according to Politifact.com. Other so-called news sources only did a little better, MSNBC 44%, and CNN came in at 22%. In this context that looks good, but should we expect one fifth of statements made to us by those we trust be false? How can we expect the candidates to be truthful if the news stations aren't? We must be very careful when we utter or write words. Words, whether written or spoken, are powerful agents. They create realities. The late actor and comedian, Robin Williams once said, 'No matter what people tell you, words can change the world.' We Jews believe this idea very strongly. We proclaim that God created the heavens and earth with spoken words. We study words in our Torah with great intensity. In this week's Torah reading we see a powerful example of the capacity of words.

At the beginning of this week's parsha we have the following statement: If a person makes a vow to the Lord or makes an oath to prohibit themselves, one shall not violate their word; according to whatever came out of one's mouth, one shall do (Numbers 30:3). This verse is the source of the mitzvoth of nedarim (vows) and Shavuot (oaths). There is much discussion about the difference between the two types of promises. The most popular approach is that a neder is a promise connected to the object being discussed, while a shavua is a commitment upon myself to do or not do some action. But I'm not really so interested in those technicalities this week. My concern is the phrase 'one shall not violate their word'. In Hebrew the word I translated as 'violate' is yachel. This term can mean a plethora of things. The most popular translation is 'break', but you could translate it as 'void' or 'nullify'. That fits in with the authoritative Aramaic translation of Onkelos (35-120 CE), who uses the word yevatel. However, others translate yachel as 'profane' or 'pollute'. This follows the position of Rashi, who explains that one must never treat their words as something unholy.

What makes a person's words holy? The easiest answer is that our verse is talking about oaths  

which were made in the name of God. So, my words become holy in this context of invoking God's name. According to this view, if I don't reference a Divine name of God, my words are profane or nothing special. However not every Jewish authority agrees. Do they ever? The Sfat Emet (Second Gerrer Rebbe, 1845-1906) avers that human speech is by its nature holy. In the hierarchy of Creation we humans are described as 'those who speak', which is the apex of a pyramid built upon inanimate objects (domem), vegetation (tzomeach) and animals (chai). Therefore in the view of the Gerrer Rebbe, the default position is that human speech is holy, and we must, as a result, be extremely careful of our words.

In the opinion of the Rebbe, words automatically create realities. For example, Peg Streep wrote: Words hurt just like sticks and stones… women who were victims of 'just' verbal abuse often commented that they wished they'd been hit so that 'their wounds and scars would show'… In one study, the researchers found that the effects of parental verbal aggression were comparable to 'those associated with witnessing domestic violence'… In fact, verbal aggression produced larger effects than familial physical abuse (psychologytoday.com, posted August 20, 2013). Words can be sticks and stones, and they can also be balms and ointments. But the Rebbe teaches that the verse goes beyond these important ideas to claim that good ol' words create commitments. Your word is your bond. We mustn't violate, profane, void, nullify or break our words.

That's the gist of the phrase 'one shall not violate their word' in the verse, but the Rebbe saves his best for last. He goes on to explain that the last phrase in the verse (whatever came out of one's mouth, one shall do) to mean 'whatever comes out of one's mouth, God will assure that it's done (or 'make it happen').' The holiness of our verbal commitments is backed by God. Be careful what you say because you may have to live with the consequences, or make your words sweet because you may have to eat them. Mine have often been over spiced. Our verse, according to the Rebbe is no longer talking about the important and vast (remember there are two Talmudic tractates, Nedarim and Shavuot, about these issues) topic of oaths and vows, it's discussing the profound issue of human speech.

We begin our Shmoneh esreh prayer by quoting the verse, 'God, open my lips, and my mouth will declare Your praise (Pslams 51:17).' We need God's help and guidance whenever we speak. When we use this faculty wisely it reflects well on our Creator. Proper speech is automatically praise of God. The opposite is desecration and blasphemy.

Words are the most powerful force available to humanity. We can choose to use this force

constructively, with positive words of encouragement and support, or destructively using words of denigration and defamation. Words create their own energy and force, and have the awesome power to help, to heal, to hinder, to hurt, to harm, to humiliate, to humble, and to honor. One of America's greatest wordsmiths, John F. Kennedy, may have said it best, 'We must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.' Not only is that great advice. I think that may be what the verse really meant.