Caught in the drama of these days between Rosh Hashana’s celebration of the birth of humanity and the intensity of Yom Kippur, we are left contemplating the fundamentals of life. Back where it all began, in the moment of our creation, “God formed man from the dust of the earth. He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.” (Genesis 2:7) Targum Onkelos, the classic 2nd century Aramaic interpretation, explains this animation into a ‘living being’ as God’s instilling within us ‘the powerful capacity of speech.’ Our humanity, according to Onkelos, is expressed in the unique unleashing of our ability to formulate words and speak.
The power of our words is much appreciated in Rabbinic thought. It is stressed in the formulation of several mitzvot of the Torah. One of these examples is found when exploring the commandment prohibiting the exploitation of another person. The Talmud notes, “Greater is the transgression of verbal mistreatment than the transgression of financial exploitation, as the command against verbal mistreatment includes the refrain, “And you shall fear your God.” But with financial exploitation, it is not stated” (Bavli Bava Metzia 58b) The Rabbinic comparison not only ascribes significant weight to our words, but the proof text brought to draw the distinction reminds us that the power of strength is imbued within us from the Divine. During this season there is a tradition to assemble a pop-up court to confront erroneous words that we haven’t lived up to. When we join as a community to open the holiest day of our year on Yom Kippur, we start with ‘Kol Nidrei’ a declaration of ‘all our vows’ a reflexive look at how we commit our words.
Talking allows us to communicate complex ideas with another being and open ourselves up to listen and understand one another. In refined circles, people are taught to take turns when talking. When using our speech to share ideas, we learn to honor the speaker, to listen and absorb before exercising our own power of speech. The great exception to this order is sharing our voice in song. We open our hearts and souls and deliberately transgress this basic rule of communication. In song we match and contrast our expressions with those of the people around us. This combined strength of humanity is a source of great comfort, encouragement and connection. We not only connect in sound, but in the Divine force instilled within each of us.
At midnight on Sunday night, thousands of people huddled together in the cemetery of Kfar Etzion. Knesset members and ministers made their way through the crowds. People stood together struggling with the incomprehensible pain that Ari Fuld z’l, a 45 year-old father of four, husband, son, brother and friend was killed while out shopping for groceries; the anguish of grasping that a life lived with intense fervor, purpose and love was cut short in a matter of seconds; awe at the fierce determination of a man, who after being stabbed multiple times, jumped walls and ran after his attacker screaming and firing his weapon to protect everyone else around; and the torment in understanding that a 16 year-old boy woke up that Sunday morning and came to the location where Palestinians and Israelis shop for groceries side by side to stalk and stab to death an Israeli. For a full hour, we all stood shoulder to shoulder, in tears and song before the first eulogies were even spoken.
God created the world with words alone. At moments of tragic loss, as human beings we fall short of expressing ourselves in words. But in flexing our united Divine gift the power to sing together remains our great comfort.
“Death and Life are in the power of the tongue; Those who love it will eat its fruit.” (Proverbs 18:21)
May we join together over this Yom Kippur in song to usher in a year of peaceful blessings.