The Power of the Word

By Rabbi Malcolm Matitiani

Every morning we Jews recite the following blessing: Baruch she-amar ve-haya ha-olam, baruch hu, baruch oseh vereishit, baruch omer ve-oseh, baruch gozer u-me-kayeim… (Blessed is the One who spoke and the world came to be, blessed is the One, blessed be the One who maintains creation, blessed is the One who speaks and does, blessed is the One who decrees and establishes…).

This blessing acknowledges the power of the spoken word. Referring to the first chapter of Genesis which portrays God as articulating the divine intention of creating each stage of the world through speech, the blessing praises the Almighty whose words and decrees become reality. This ability of creating realities through verbal communication was bestowed on human beings who, like God, can articulate the abstract and thereby transform ideas and thoughts into concrete reality. Thus Targum Onkelos (the officially recognised Aramaic translation of the Torah) understands the verse, ‘the Eternal God formed the Human from the dust of the earth. God blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the Human became a living being’ (Genesis 2:7) to mean that on blowing the breath of life into Adam’s nostrils, God gave Adam ‘the spirit of speech’ (va-ha-vat be-adam leru’ach memalla).  Onkelos recognised that the gift of language distinguishes humanity from the other animals of the earth. Indeed according to the Torah, God asked Adam to name the other animals, thus illustrating the point that human beings are god-like in the sense that we have the ability to create through language.

It is no accident that Judaism is a text-based religion and culture. The destruction of the Second Temple in 70CE led to the transformation of Judaism from a religion based on animal sacrifices to one based on Torah study, prayer and the performance of mitzvoth; from a faith dependant on a fixed sacred space to one based on the portable ‘sanctuary’ of books. The reliance on text rather than on a Temple enabled the Jews to survive persecution and expulsion and allowed them to set up communities and live meaningful, God-fearing lives wherever they relocated. Unlike material wealth and possessions, knowledge and the ability to express ideas and debate opinions can never be taken away by the persecutor as is illustrated by the examples of Rabbis Akiva (Berachot 61b) and Yehudah ben Bava (Sanhedrin 14a).

While language has the potential to create and promote life, it also has the potential to create negativity, hatred and destruction. Torah and rabbinic teaching counsel care in the use of language and especially the spoken word which is often used in anger and impetuously. Lashon ha-ra (evil speech) or slander is considered by the sages as a transgression akin to murder (Bava Metzia 58b) and punishable by the loss of a share in the world to come (Avot 3:12).  

Jewish history teaches the danger of hate-speech and slander. Thousands of Jews were murdered as a direct result of false accusations about Jewish practice and behaviour. The blood libels of medieval and even twentieth century Europe testify to the destructive capabilities of language. Of course the most tragic and evil result of the misuse of language was the Shoah which led to the physical murder of six million Jews and the destruction of Jewish European culture, a loss that has not been regained more than seventy years after the end of WWII. This mass genocide was the direct result of the anti-Semitism, xenophobia and paranoia of ruthless madmen who used the power of language to express their noxious ideas.  Joseph Goebbels, Minister of ‘Public Enlightenment and Propaganda’ used the spoken and written word to convince the people of Europe that the Jews and other ‘undesirables’ needed to be exterminated; spreading vicious lies about the Jews’ part in the defeat of the Axis powers during WWI and accusing us of plotting to take over the world. 

Today the State of Israel faces a similar propaganda campaign launched by extremists who wish to see the eradication of the Jewish State and a second genocide of the Jews. The most despicable slur is the statement that the Shoah is a figment of the Jews’ imagination, designed to gain sympathy for the Israeli cause. 

It is a sad indictment on humanity that thousands of people believe these and other examples of hate speech, and are motivated by these untruths to murder innocent men, women and children. 

These examples from history point to the profundity of the Talmudic statement that there is not much of a leap from hate speech and slander to physical murder. 

Of course the dangers of misusing language are not always as dramatic. Speaking about another in their absence can lead to dire social consequences by destroying that person’s standing in the community, and diminishing his or her spiritual and emotional self-worth. While a physical wound eventually heals, emotional scarring caused by the written or spoken word can often fester through generations. The Talmud (Ta’anit 20a-b) relates a story about Rabbi Eleazar ben Rabbi Shimeon who replied to a man’s greeting by insulting his physical appearance. After realising his transgression and attaining forgiveness, Rabbi Eleazar entered the Bet Hamidrash and taught, “A man should always be gentle as the reed and let him never be unyielding as the cedar. And for this reason the reed merited, that of it should be made a pen for the writing of the Torah, Tefillin and Mezuzot.” It is the gentle and forgiving reed that is used to write the words of the sefer Torah, the tefillin and the mezuzah, the very symbols of our covenant with God and of our life-affirming values and traditions. May all that we say and write be gentle and yielding as the reed. Then we shall create positive realities that promote the sanctity of life, thus using the power of language as God intended.

Temple Israel

• Published in the November 2022 Digital Edition – Click here to read it.

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