Vacating our vocabulary

Hate. Safe. Anti-semitic. Great. Words like these connote agreed-upon meanings. Recently, however, such meanings have crept outward and downward. An innocent and accidental slight becomes an aggression, or micro-aggression. Reindeers bully Rudolph for his red nose. Predisposition becomes prejudice. Even praise gets deflated. Greatness is flattened. And threats to safety are being dismissed on the grounds of hyper-sensitivity.

Concept creep, as psychologist Nick Haslam calls this phenomenon, is happening everywhere we turn. All news is breaking news. Anything distasteful is deemed hateful. All violence becomes terrorism. Victimhood abounds. And not only are victims of smear-campaigns degraded, the words used to degrade them are too. “As they are stripped of meaning” New York Times editor Bari Weiss laments “they strip us of our sharpness, of our ability to react forcefully to real fascists, to real misogynists.”

Words are being emptied of their meaning. It is time to replenish them.

This week’s portion of Torah reveals a way forward. A new Pharaoh for whom Joseph was unknown has arisen. The proliferating Children of Israel are viewed as a formidable threat. Those who view the world through power vs. powerless lens, see every potentially destabilizing phenomenon as a signal of imminent ambush. Pharaoh decrees the drowning of all newborn boys. In such a dire and dark context, a woman who will become the birthmother of Moses reclaims wording we have not heard since the dawn of Creation. “She conceived and bore a son. When she looked upon him, she proclaimed ‘Behold it is good’ (ki tov)” (Ex. 2:2). From the depths of destruction, Moses’ mother echoes God’s glorious acclamation ‘Behold it is good’ (ki tov) which praised a elegantly ordered life-affirming world (Gen. 1:4,10,12,18,21,25). From amidst noxious bloodshed, emerges a call to fragrant goodness.

The word good is a biblical superlative. God does not say, ‘Behold it is sensational’ or ‘Behold it is the greatest of all time’. Conditions of goodness are the best conditions possible.

As we enter 2019, our vocation is to reclaim our rapidly vacating vocabulary. The emergence of Urban Dictionaries (let alone rural ones) are rendering shorthand as a means of selling language short. Words hold weight. They are conveyers of meaning. May our resolutions include a restoration of a dignified grammar of living and experiencing that is capable of expressing how attractive goodness can actually be.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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