July 8, 1999
Choosing Our Words Carefully
Parashat Matot-Masee (Numbers 30:2-36:13)
For the last several months, my 5-year-old son and I have been engaged in a spirited discussion over a four-letter word that he brought home with him from nursery school. The word is "cool," an adjective his peers apply to everything, from "Star Wars" action figures to cheese pizza. My husband and I agreed that if we asked our son to refrain from using the word, it might force him to find different, more varied words to use. Of course, we were met with initial resistance. But before long, he had adopted his own set of terms "interesting," "fascinating" and his favorite: "smashing." Our goal was to encourage him to discover other words and, in turn, to start unlocking the power of the spoken word.
This week's Torah portion highlights that very power. Parashat Matot advises us to speak with caution. In particular, it warns us to take care in making vows: "If a person makes a vow to God, he shall not desecrate his word; he shall do whatever comes from his mouth," (Numbers 30:3). Be careful when you open your mouth to make a promise, the Torah warns. If you say it, you ought to mean it.
On the surface, this seems obvious. Why does the Torah need to tell us this? Simply because promises are easily broken? The 19th-century Polish Chassidic sage known as the Sefat Emet suggests that the Torah is teaching something about the inherent significance of what we utter. Our words, he says, are holy. As soon as they leave our lips and go out into the world, they become tinged with godliness.
What do words have to do with God? We learn from the very first lines of Genesis that the world came about through speech: God spoke the world into being. "God said, 'Let there be light.' And there was light." And we, who were created in God's image, can do that, too.
We also create worlds with words. With one sentence, we inspire, we teach, we entertain. A few words to a sick relative or a friend in mourning bring comfort. With a few breaths, love is offered and requited. The right word at the right time can change a life.
But there's even more power contained in our utterances. Words destroy as well as create. A parent or a teacher can dole out criticism so harsh that it can haunt a child for years. We can all remember the stinging words of childhood peers. And history's most brutal and tragic chapters began not with battles but with words: Pharaoh's decree, Hitler's Nuremberg Laws.
With such dangers lurking, wouldn't it be better just to live in silence? To take the Torah's example: If vows are so serious, isn't it preferable to avoid making them at all? The Torah suggests not. Words are the connections between us. We need them. Silence is not the antidote to rash or destructive language. Words are meant to be used, but with extraordinary care; with a momentary pause before speaking; with a built-in second to consider: Will my words do harm? Will I regret what I say later? Will my words be heard?
One of the greatest lessons we learn early in our lives is what we can accomplish with words. As our young vocabularies grow, each word brings new power, unlocking capacities to touch others. But the Jewish tradition reminds us over and over to use our language carefully. Each time we do, serves to remind us of our ability to create worlds, big and small, dangerous and glorious and -- most smashing of all -- to live in the image of God.
Shawn Fields-Meyer is rabbi of Congregation Etz Hadar in Redlands. She is also instructor in liturgy and adviser to students at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism.