Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Power of Words

Yesterday I served as lay leader for the Friday evening Sabbath services at Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia, New Jersey, and I thought it would be worthwhile to share  the words of my sermon with you here on Blog Time Passing, especially since the subject of language and communication is one that is near and dear to my heart.

The Power of Words

In Jewish tradition, we call the sermon part of the service the D'Var Torah, which means word of Torah, which is based on the weekly Torah reading. And this week's Torah portion, Parsha Vayechi, is the last one from the Book of Genesis, and the theme that I want to draw from it has to do with the power of words.

But first, I want to mention that last Sunday (December 7th), I was a substitute teacher for our religious school's 6th and 7th grade Judaica classes, which was an absolute delight. And the lesson I taught was a special one on the power of words and the ethics of language. This included the basic moral teachings about the importance of honesty in most situations, and the various admonitions in Jewish tradition against gossip. You may recall, for example, the traditional version of our silent prayer, which begins, "May God keep my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking guile." The language is derived from the Psalms.

And to underscore the power of words, I pointed out that in Genesis, God begins the creation of the world with words, by saying Let there be light. He speaks Creation into existence, as the text says, "And God said, Let there be light, and there was light."

A little later in Genesis, after creating Adam, the Torah says that God had him give names to all of the animals, and it says that whatever Adam called them, that became their name. I should add that I had to explain that what the Torah meant by Adam giving them names was not names like Fred or Sam or Linda, but names like cow, and chicken, and whale. But the point is that giving names to all of the animals was the way in which Adam established dominion over them, and his role as caretaker of God's Creation.

The fact that names have power is also reflected in the one name that do not pronounce in the Torah and our prayerbooks, the Yod Hay Vov Hay that is not supposed to be said out loud, which is why we substitute adonai instead.

The power of names is also seen in the renaming of Abraham and Sarah, who were originally called Abram and Sarai, their new names symbolizing their new roles as patriarch and matriarch. It can also be seen in the second name given to Jacob after he wrestles with the angel, his new name being Israel. In this, we see a motif common to many traditional cultures, the use of an eponym to personify an entire group of people. It is a way of telling the story, and history, of a people by using a single individual as a symbol to represent the entire nation.

In this way, the descendants of the line of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob become known as the Children of Israel, one people, but they also are represented as a group of tribes. Jacob had twelve sons, symbolizing the twelve tribes of Israel. In order of birth, the twelve sons were Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, and Benjamin. Each one represented one tribe in the ancient land of Israel, with the exception of Joseph. Instead of a tribe of Joseph, there were two tribes whose names are represented by Joseph's two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim.

In this week Torah portion, Jacob is on his deathbed, and before he dies, he blesses his grandchildren, Ephraim and Manasseh. The Torah refers to Jacob by his other name, Israel, and says that he stretched out his hands and put them on the heads of the two sons, and blessed them, saying:

"God, before Whom my fathers, Abraham and Isaac, walked, God Who sustained me as long as I am alive, until this day, may the angel who redeemed me from all harm bless the youths, and may they be called by my name and the name of my fathers, Abraham and Isaac, and may they multiply abundantly like fish, in the midst of the land."

In this way, he indicates that his grandchildren and their descendants will be known by the name of Israel, as well as being identified as descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Torah portion goes on to say,

So he blessed them on that day, saying, "With you, Israel will bless, saying, 'May God make you like Ephraim and like Manasseh.' "

And this becomes the traditional Jewish blessing over children: May God make you like Ephraim and like Manasseh.

We can recall here the power of language, to bless, and also to curse, and more generally, to heal and to harm.

In this week's parsha, after blessing Joseph's children, Jacob then calls for all of his sons, and provides a final prophecy, saying,

Gather and I will tell you what will happen to you at the end of days. Gather and listen, sons of Jacob, and listen to Israel, your father.

He then says that Reuben, the first born, and Simeon and Levi, the next two, will not give rise to the dominant tribe of the twelve, but rather that it shall be the fourth son, Judah, saying:

Judah, [as for] you, your brothers will acknowledge you. Your hand will be at the nape of your enemies, [and] your father's sons will prostrate themselves to you. A cub [and] a grown lion is Judah. From the prey, my son, you withdrew. He crouched, rested like a lion, and like a lion, who will rouse him? The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the student of the law from between his feet, until Shiloh comes, and to him will be a gathering of peoples.

Jacob goes on to speak about his other sons, but I want to focus on this passage because, while the twelve tribes are united for the better part of a century under the reign of King David and King Solomon, they then split into two separate kingdoms, the northern kingdom of Israel, and the southern kingdom of Judah, which took its name from the tribe of Judah.

When the Assyrians invade and destroy the northern kingdom of Israel, ten of the twelve tribes disappear, leaving only Judah and Levi, the Levites being a priestly tribe with no permanent home. The people of the northern kingdom become known as the ten lost tribes, although some possible remnants of some of them have surfaced in recent years, but in the past some people went searching for ten lost tribes. For example, when the New World was discovered by European explorers, and they first encountered the native Americans, some thought they might be the ten lost tribes. But back in the ancient world, the people who were left behind in the northern kingdom, and others who settled there after the Assyrian invasion, became known as Samaritans. The phrase good Samaritan comes from the New Testament, and the Samaritans are still around today, in very small numbers, practicing a religion similar to Judaism.

The southern kingdom of Judah survived for a while longer, until the Babylonian conquest and captivity, but the Babylonians did not destroy the people of Judah, and later, when the Persian Empire conquered Babylon, the Emperor Cyrus allowed the people of Judah to return, and rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem, and this is described in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Later still, when the Romans conquered Judah, they referred to the kingdom in Latin as Judea. So, it is from Judah and Judea, or Yehuda in Hebrew, that we get the name Jews, and the word Judaism.

Jacob describes his son Judah as a lion, and the lion was the symbol of the tribe of Judah, and of King David, who came from the tribe of Judah, and David's son Solomon. The Ethiopians believed that their royal line was descended from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, and used the Lion of Judah as the symbol of their kingdom, appearing on their flag, until 1974, when the last king, Haile Selassie, was deposed, although he is still venerated within the Rastafari movement or religion.

Jacob uses the phrase, until Shiloh comes, and the meaning of those words is a bit of mystery. Some interpret the name Shiloh as a variation on the Hebrew word shaluach, which means messenger, and take it as a reference to the Messiah, which of course means different things to Jews and to Christians, while the Moslems interpret it as a reference to the prophet Mohammad.

Shiloh is also the name of a city, in the land allotted to the tribe of Ephraim, and that is where the Ark of the Covenant was placed after the Children of Israel return to the promised land following the exodus, which made it the religious capital of Israel before King David conquered Jerusalem and King Solomon built the Temple there. Instead of the phrase until Shiloh comes, the JPS translation of Genesis renders the passage, as long as men come to Shiloh.

Shiloh was located in what is now the West Bank, and this brings to mind the fact that there can be conflicts over names, and that some of those conflicts are more than scholarly disputes over the meaning of ancient biblical texts. This includes conflicts between Jews and Arabs over place names in the Middle East. The West Bank, which is now partially under the governance of the Palestinian Authority, has also been referred to as Judea and Samaria by religious and conservative groups opposed to relinquishing control of the territory, as it does correspond to the ancient land of Israel. The coastal region that Israel occupies today was, during the biblical area, the home of the Canaanites, otherwise known as the Philistines.

The name Philistine is a variation on Palestine, another name for the land of Canaan that is used over 250 times in the Bible. The various peoples in the Bible referred to as Philistines and Canaanites, like the ten lost tribes, no longer exist. But after the Romans destroyed the second Temple, sacked Jerusalem, and dispersed our people, they merged the provinces of Judea and Galilee and renamed it Syria Palestina. In the 20th century, the British Empire created the Mandate of Palestine after the First World War, and before the creation of the State of Israel, Jewish inhabitants and Zionist settlers were often referred to as Palestinians. Some argue that the Arab inhabitants of this area never called themselves Palestinians until the sixties, but that claim is not universally accepted.

There are conflicts over names because words have power. And whoever has the power to name things can exert a certain amount of control over those things, just as Adam did in naming all of the animals. The lesson that we can take from the Torah, and from all of human history, is the importance of using our words, and the necessity of using them with care.

Three of the Ten Commandments teach this lesson. The prohibition against graven images can be understood as a commandment to do what parents tell their children to do, to use your words, to communicate with language. The commandment not to take God's name in vain tells us to show respect for the sacred, and the commandment not to bear false witness tells us to show respect for others. And what this requires of us is to be aware, to be mindful of our use of language. It is all to easy to speak without thinking, and what our tradition teaches us is to think, first and foremost, to think before speaking, to be mindful of what we say.

Abraham Lincoln said, "better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt." And President Obama asked us to observe a moment of silence tomorrow (Saturday, December 14th) morning at 9:30 AM in memory of the children and teachers who were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Silence is the counterpart of words, and without silence, we would be left speechless. Without some degree of silence, language degenerates into noise.

I think that the same advice we give children about crossing the street can be applied to our use of words: Stop. Look. And Listen. Listening, above all, requires us to be silent, and attend to what others have to say. To listen shows respect for others' words, and for others as persons, and without listening there can be no understanding.

Stop, look, and listen, to each other, and to ourselves, to the still small voice within. Listen to ourselves, and consider the power of our words, think about how others may react to our words, what they might feel when they hear what we might want to say. To be sensitive to the effect that our words have on others. To be ethical in our use of language. And to recognize the value of silence, and to be mindful of the words of our silent prayer: May God keep my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking guile. Amen. And Shabbat shalom.


Anonymous said...

Well God said "Let there be light." not "Let there be language or communication."
Seeing comes before everything.

Lance Strate said...

If there was no language, then how did God say, "Let there be light"? The implication is that language exists before creation, the word comes before the world.

Iulia Flame said...

Hello Lance. It has been a while since I've read one of your blogs. This is quite refreshing. Words and language are quite important to me as well. I will be thinking on your words for a while.

Lance Strate said...

Thanks so much! Great to hear from you!