Death and Life Are In the Power of The Tongue (Proverbs 18:20)
“These are the words that Moses spoke to all of Israel (1:1)….”
Thus opens the fifth book of Torah, with Moses exhorting the people: where they have been, where they are now and ….towards where are they going. For a moment let us return to the outset of Moses’ mission: God’s summons him, empowering him to redeem the People of Israel. To this Moses replies, “O Lord I am not a man of words, neither in times past, nor now……I am slow of speech and slow of tongue;” to which God responds, “who has given one speech…is it not I?” (Exodus 4:10-12).
In fact tradition teaches that it was with words that God creates the world…”let there be light, and there was light.” We commemorate this act in the morning blessing recited daily: “Blessed is the One who spoke and the world came to be…”
Words do empower, accomplishing good or otherwise. During the travails of Israel’s desert wandering, Moses, was told to “speak to the rock that it bring forth water” (Numbers 20).Instead, he smashed it, castigating the people, and offering a classic case of a leader’s abuse of power:Notwithstanding the water that gushed out, Moses was guilty of treating the gift of speech as simply a mechanical act, devoid of moral force.
Words, words, words. Further on in our narrative we learn additionally how the choice of words by a leader may result in commendation or denigration. Called upon by Moabite King Balak to curse the People of Israel, feared as a formidable enemy (Numbers 24), the prophet Balaam opens, his eyes and ears to another reality before him and an alternative course of action. He declares,”how goodly are your tents (places of study) O Jacob, your dwelling places (homes) O Israel!”
Blessings may surpass curses! The Divine origin of speech is mediated by human consciousness and conscience as we learn from American writer and theologian, Frederick Buechner, who directs us to sources in our own lives for repairing the moral and spiritual breeches occasioned by careless, thoughtless speech.”The place where God calls to you is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet”[Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, 1993,p.119, found in Palmer Parker, The Courage To Teach, 2001, p.30].
Words are Divinely inspired, humanly transmitted, and manifested in behavior. The reality of this was made clear to me yet again at a recent conference held at the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem entitled,”Healing Hatred: Spiritual Challenge in a Context of Political Conflict”. Father Michael Lapsley, a South African Anglican Priest and social justice activist who founded the Institute for the Healing of Memories in Capetown, spoke about his experiences as a victim of terror during the ‘struggle,’ about the role of hope against bitterness and cynicism and how the force of words and actions do heal.
In a subsequent workshop, facilitators Joe Moore, Joe di Garbo and Jane Harris asked each of us to offer one word that best described our personal response to Fr. Lapsley’s presentation. For me it was TRUST, the power of the word to elicit changing perceptions of harsh realities.
Martin Buber conveyed the possibility of such a relational experience in terms of “dialogue,” of I and Thou (Translation and Prologue, Walter Kaufman, Scribners, 1970).Political expediency is never viewed as an active facet of such communication, rather serving as an agent of exploitation.But I would like to believe, without too great a measure of naiveté, that politicians, ought to be held accountable to their “word”, much like any individuals. This and more, given our ability to speak, is grounded in the very first acts of creation, bespeaking the sacredness of speech!
The contrary is forever with us. In this spirit, the government of the State of Israel recently voided the verbally-promised, signed, and agreed upon commitment to provide for much expanded egalitarian prayer space adjacent to the Western Wall. Additionally, in the same breath, the Prime Minister cancelled another declaration, given orally and in writing, on behalf of the rights of non-Orthodox rabbis to perform weddings, recognized in Israel and abroad. The government’s word OUGHT to have been its bond,with no cynicism intended.
Frederick Morgan [A Book of Change, 1972, p20] attests to his own belief in the struggle of individuals to persist with integrity, being authentic in one’s words! He writes, “….words are travelers, busy with the problems of transportation, often harassed and hurried. There is peace though, in the thought of arrival.”
We are on a journey these three weeks, from the seventeenth of the month of Tammuz until the upcoming fast of the Ninth of Av. This coming Shabbat commemorates the vision of the Prophet, who I believe, looks out not only on the imminent destruction—KHURBAN – but, I want to put forward, also to healing, if we choose, in the spirit of Tikun Olam, B’malkhutShaddai.
Each day we commit to doing our parts, commemorating God’s Word in renewing the work of creation. May we find the inspiration to affirm….”death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:20).
About the Author:
Rabbi Paul (Shaul) R Feinberg, PhD, is the Associate Dean, Emeritus and Adjunct Associate Professor of Education, Emeritus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem, Israel.