Everyday we are assailed by words from the moment we wake till we lie down at night. We all use about 20,000 words a day (and despite the myth, women don’t actually use more words then men).
I love watching my grandson, Ezzy, roll words around in his mouth discovering their beauty and power, their capacity to connect, to impress, to capture the essence of a moment, to amuse and bemuse.
And how I love words, delving into them, playing with them, crafting them, honing them, sharpening them and punning them. Words have always carried me through life’s ups and downs and I have tried to carry them with care and respect. But I have often failed, been careless and used them unthinkingly and cruelly. It’s been said the tongue has no bones but it’s strong enough to break a heart…
My grandson may only know a few hundred words, but they are good and useful ones. Sadly, I know that as he grows he will be exposed to weasel words and wounding words, Lashon hara and diba ra’ah, cutting words and F bombs, words worth forgetting and words that he will wish he had never said or never heard… I worry about him growing up in a world where there is no civility, no respect in our online and public discourse, where politicians and leaders use words as crudely as a jack-hammer.
I will do my best to help direct him to the great words, the powerful words, the poignant words, the words that helped change the world.
I would love to introduce him to the speeches that shook the word. One of the longest and greatest of all speeches is surely that of Moses, the oration that comprises the book of Deuteronomy. In Hebrew the name of this book is actually Devarim, the Book of Words. It is a speech of great breadth and depth. Its themes are personal and universal, local and global. it talks of love and law, of listening and committing, of remembering and never forgetting. but most of all it talks of covenant and continuity – the building blocks of Jewish identity.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks singles out one verse in this week’s parasha which he suggests summarises the entire relationship between God and the people of Israel: “You have affirmed this day that the Lord is your God, that you will walk in His ways… And the Lord has affirmed this day that you are … his treasured people”. (Deuteronomy 26:17 to 18). The word “affirmed” is the key verb in both sentences; in Hebrew it is heemarta which is a form of the verb to say. The basis of the relationship between God and the people of Israel is in the saying, in the words. We enter into a relationship with God through our words, through our acceptance of his words and His affirmation of ours. That’s what covenant is all about. It’s about an enduring promise of love and hope, commitment and continuity.
All around us there is so much tension, anger, anxiety caused by the tiny little coronavirus. Anger leads to angry words, anxiety leads to critical words, tension leads to terrible words..
This year, in these strange times, words more than ever are what will hold us together. In the absence of physical connection we need more than ever to lean towards emotional contact. And what more than words will help us connect to each other? Social distancing does not have to mean verbal and emotional distancing.
So in the month of Elul, these weeks leading up to Rosh Hashana, let’s make sure we use our speech carefully and lovingly. That we choose gentle and caring syllables, strong and generous adjectives, wise and wondrous words.