Words! Words! Words! I’m so sick of words! I hear words all day through/ first from him, now from you...
— “Show Me” from “My Fair Lady” by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe
One of the world’s greatest gifts of light is our Torah. A quick peek into the Torah scroll provides aseemingly unending cascade of words, which the mystics call “black fire.” The spaces between these words is “white fire.” Together, when engaged by a curious mind and a vulnerable heart, they illuminate our lives with meaning, prospects for hope, opportunities for innovations. For thousands of years, unlike the song from “My Fair Lady,” we never tire of these words. Instead, our tradition teaches us to turn them over and over, always revealing something new.
However, words intended as weapons to overpower, or words that are carelessly shared, carry negative charges. Experiencing them can be very damaging.
Overt expressions of hatred, or devaluation, cause real pain and words fashioned into falsehoods remain an erosive epidemic, filling the Valley of Deceptions. It’s incredible how many ways words can be harmful and how they scorch the sensitive psyche, inflicting illness. At their most extreme, we know words can extinguish the light of life. In contrast, words of Torah were meant to foster and sustain life.
The words of the godly are a life-giving fountain...
— Proverbs 10:11
As we open Devarim, Torah’s final book, we meet at a formidable juncture: Moses is dying and b’nai Yisrael (children of Israel) are about to journey forward in the absence of his physical presence. Simultaneously, heaven and the Promised Land remain open to receiving God’s prophet and God’s children. Before his soul departs, Moses makes sure b’nai Yisrael remembers their roots, lessons from their ancestors’ journeys, God’s instructions for living optimal lives as individuals and as a kehillah hakodesh (a holy community), ways they can forge Jewish identity across time. As a result, Moses becomes Torah’s first interpreter and his words form the priceless adhesive between the people, the land and God.
In Devarim, Moses’ words teach about life lived in first class: how to remain free from the rubber band, snapping us back to lives half-lived in steerage. Circumstances, like steerage, can be familiar, even comfort- ing, but they can also create immobility. On the other hand, traveling first class may be unfamiliar, even scary. We may wonder if we can trust its promises of well-being, fulfillment or happiness when all we have known is the predictable confinement of someone else’s (such as Pharaoh’s) control.
Captured by this rubber band, lives end without ever knowing what could have been.
All the things yet to come/ Are the things that have passed/ Like the holding of hands/ Like the breaking of glass... / And the stench of the sea/ And the absence of green/ Are the death of all things that I’ve seen and unseen/ Are an end but the start of all things that are left to do/ Wasteland, baby/ I’m in love/ I’m in love with you
— Andrew Hozier-Byrne (“Wasteland, Baby!”)
Devarim: things, utterances, sayings, words.
Words become things. They have substance. They matter. They endure. The spaces between them make a difference, too, whether as “white fire,” such as a gesture, a glance, a moment of deep silence.
The lips of the godly speak helpful words...
— Proverbs 10:32
The words of the wise bring healing...
— Proverbs 12:18
Apples of gold in silver settings are words that are spoken in a fitting manner.
— Proverbs 25:11
This Shabbat, consider extricating them from the wasteland of disregard or selfish intention. Elevate them to holiness instead. Revitalize them and raise them up with care, like your glass of Shabbat wine. Affirm life that is lived: bold and brave, gentle and sweet, in truth; not with surrender to empty routine, cold manipulation of circumstances or the careless exploitation of another. Release the rubber band that snaps you back to steerage. Step into your inheritance that is God’s eternal love letter, because Moses, with every breath of his life, entrusted us to love and care for these divine words. JN
Rabbi Mindie Snyder is the former spiritual leader of Congregation Lev Shalom in Flagstaff.