Weighing our words and works

A posted highway sign reads: “Turn around. The end is near.” A semi-trailer truck dismissively barrels past it in the mountainous fog, tumbling into the valley. “Perhaps” reflects a construction worker, “we should have instead posted a sign that simply said: ‘Bridge is out’”.

Word choice matters. Although words may seem less consequential than works, the weight of words holds considerable sway.  When handled recklessly, minor slights sound alarms and misdemeanors signal apocalypse. Earlier this week amidst the terrorism in Germany, an assassination in Turkey, and destruction of Aleppo, an op-ed column on early college admission used terms like ‘plague’ ‘dread’ and ‘terrifying’. 

Justice, safety, and equity are consistently challenged in today’s world.  This week’s portion of Torah familiarizes us with some grammar to help us meet these challenges.  Words like ‘recognize’ and ‘resist’ recur in the stories of Jacob, Judah, and Joseph. 

This week we meet the Bible’s only two appearances of the Hebrew words (haker na) for ‘recognize’ (Gen. 37:32, 38:25).  Jacob’s sons say it when they present Joseph’s bloody tunic to their father to imply Joseph’s demise.  And Tamar says it when presenting Judah with his seal and staff, evoking Judah’s response: “she is more righteous than me”. Recognition is freighted with responsibility.  The inner strength to ‘resist’ also makes two appearances this week.  Jacob resists feeling comforted by family members who seek to console him in the wake of his loss of Joseph (Gen. 37:35).  And Joseph’s iron will enables him to resist the tempting advances of Potiphar’s wife (Gen.39:8).  Both instances of resistance will eventually be rewarded. Recognition and resistance are vital reflexes that help generate redemption.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote, “It takes great courage, wisdom, defiance, and depth of faith to remain moral.”   As we prepare to gather around the Hanukkah lights, may we dedicate ourselves handling our words with precision and care.

Words hold weight. They can stir hearts.  They can make spirits soar.  May our words inform, and our works perform – both lending form to lives that warm faith in brighter tomorrows.

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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