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The Power of Words


Do you wanna buy a kite? I’ve got to let you know. Do you wanna buy a kite?

Earnestly, I thought these were the lyrics to Inxs’s song whose lyrics are actually, “I’ve got to let you know- you’re one of my kind.” Not-- “Do you wanna buy a kite?”

Or, my mom once thought, the opening lyrics to the Kink's "Tired of Waiting for you" actually were “I was a bowl of soap” instead of “I was a lonely soul.”

Ahh... language. And the mishaps that can occur when we get it wrong.


On my phone once, autocorrect changed “z’man simchateinu” (the season of our joy) to “xmas simchateinu.” Funny. A friend typed out “etrog” and autocorrect changed it to “estrogen.”

Theologically significant changes can occur as well: on a friend’s phone, it turned “shul” into “soul.”


If you think about it-- it is VERY important that we get language right.


Language is very important. And, we know this most as in this week’s Torah portion, Bereishit, we find ourselves at the beginning-- the very beginning, once again recounting creation.

You know, the whole-- “the earth was null and void...” and then miraculously, “God said, ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light... And it was good.”


Interpreters of our tradition have stressed the significance of God’s act of speaking the world into being. God didn’t weave the world into being. God didn’t zap the world into being. Or shape the world into being, or anything else. God SPOKE the world into being by saying, “let there be light.”


This, rabbis throughout the ages have stressed, calls us to recognize that language can be a very creative force.Joseph Telushkin, in his book “Words that Hurt, Words that Heal” suggests the four most positive phrases we can utter are:

Thank you, I love you, How are you? and What do you need?

When someone shares these words, they are building bridges and making connections. We can reach out with words.


In the book of Exodus, we are reminded that words can invoke healing when we remember Moses sitting over Miriam reciting “El na refa na lah”-- God please heal her please! His words, some suggest, invoke the healing powers of the heavens.


Proverbs tells us two things about positive words:

The tongue of the wise gives health. -- Proverbs 12:18 A wholesome tongue is a tree of life. -- Proverbs 15:4


The power of creation and life conveyed with words.


I have recently come to appreciate how words create our reality. Every time I officiate a wedding, I am reminded the creation of the marriage with the powerful words-- the vows that each partner utters, and then at the end when I pronounce "by the power vested in me..." Words open up a new level of the relationship.


It is clear that language is powerful and can create beautiful, wonderful bonds between and among people.


But, just as the positive side of language is a creative force-- the negative side of language is a destructive force. Unintentionally, words can hurt others. They can be a source of violence. In fact, the sages of the Mishnah liken them to weapons of war-- they warn us that words can be like an arrow launched from a bow. They note that a speaker may intend for the words to go one way, but when released into the air, can be misdirected and unintentionally hit and pierce the core of another. Right in the heart-- violently hurting, or killing the spirit of another.

Intentional harsh or malicious or careless speech can be even worse.


We need only look at the news, and we will find harsh words everywhere. Words can indeed be violent. Sticks and stones can break our bones AND words can be very hurtful. So, as we begin a new year, let's be even more thoughtful about the words that we use. And through this intentionality, may we create the world we wish to see.




The above is a reflection by Rabbi Heather Miller on this week's Torah portion, Parashat Bereishit, Genesis 1:1-6:8 . Please visit rabbiheathermiller.com to subscribe and follow on social media.

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