Words hold weight. They can be ferocious. Yet their gentle caress can feel so tender. This week’s portions of Torah open with a high appraisal of words in form of vows.
The consequences of poorly chosen words is evident when two Tribes come forward with a treacherous request. Moses’s denied dream of entry into the Land is their audacious wish. Economic opportunity is the reason for their appeal to settle on the eastern banks of the Jordan river. Moses confronts them forcefully, “You’re taking the place of the wrongful Spies, a culture of sinners, to yet again inflame God’s anger!” (Num. 32:14). They clarify their intent to lead the effort to settled the Promised Land. Only thereafter will they seek resettlement.
Emotional collapse is Moses’s chief concern. The word he uses to lay bare the threat of infectious despair is ‘holding back of heart’ (t’ni-un), a bending back from bravery. The text uses the same word (yania) earlier when describing vow-cancelation (Num 30:9). This is what’s at stake in today’s world, with our social media awash in shameless social violence.
Where can we find cupfuls of courage? The poet Christian Wiman depicts faith as ‘a motion of the soul toward God.’ Such a motion warms emotion within us.
Judge Learned Hand spoke in 1944 of a special spirit of liberty that “lies hidden in some form in the aspirations of us all.” It’s time to rediscover that spirit and extend nourishing helpings of it to others.
The words of Psalm 141 plead, “Don’t bend my heart (hay-ni) to the temptation of hate, the urge to treat cruelly those who act with cruelty”. May our hearts not turn aside. Rather let them turn toward a caring and careful repurposing our ‘land of the free’ and ‘home of the brave’.