The Power of Words

18 Jul

There’s a Jewish expression that one is likely to hear from observant Jews. Those words are bli neder, literally, without an oath. Despite the inherent negativity of the statement, it is generally used to commit to something. For example, “Honey, what time will you be home?” To which the spouse responds, “Bli neder, I’ll be home by 6:00 for dinner.”
Words matter. Words have power. That is the message of the opening of today’s double Torah portion, Mattot-Masei. Moses instructs the heads of the tribes saying: Ish ki-yidor neder l’Adonai o hishav’a shevu’a l’esor isar al nafsho lo yachel devaro—If a person makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath imposing a self- obligation, he shall not break his pledge; k’khol hayotze mipiv yaase, he must carry out all that has crossed his lips.

Rabbi Harold Kushner comments, “The power of speech is one of the unique gifts of a human being, a power we share with no other creature. In these rules governing vows and oaths, we see that human beings, like God, have the power to make things holy by words, by proclaiming them holy. By uttering words, an Israelite can impose an obligation on himself or herself as binding as God’s commands in the Torah.”

Words matter. Words have power. Words can change the world. Yet, words are sometimes ambiguous. The meaning of words spoken by one person might not be understood the same way by another. The misunderstanding that results unfortunately can lead to bitter conflict and, God forbid, sometimes war.

The meaning of words on paper is the top news story this week as the US, together with its P5+1 partners concluded an agreement with Iran to curtail Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. To be clear, the agreement delays Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. Is a 15-year delay a good thing? On the surface, it should be. If we were discussing rational actors, there would be widespread relief that the world will have fewer nuclear bombs for the foreseeable future.

Unfortunately, with respect to Iran, we are not discussing rational actors. Its mullahs fantasize about wiping Israel off the map. A bomb in the hands of religious fundamentalists is a terrifying prospect. Furthermore, the conventional weaponry that Iran will now be able to purchase with the lifting of sanctions is not much less frightening. Yossi Klein Halevi, a well-respected centrist journalist in Israel has said that Jewish history teaches us that when enemies threaten to destroy us, we believe them.

Like many of you, I’ve read what I could about the accord. I also participated in a conference call for rabbis convened by AIPAC and another by the Rabbinical Assembly. There is indeed much to be concerned about this agreement. I don’t claim to have any more expertise than anyone else in this room. Like many people, I have my deep reservations about it. It’s interesting to note that within Israel, not only has Prime Minister Netanyahu voiced protest—we all expected that—but so have his liberal opponents in the Knesset, Yitzhak Herzog, Tzippi Livni and Yair Lapid. In coming days and weeks, there will be spirited debate in Congress whether or not to accept this deal. We will all be following this closely.

I’ve tried to keep up with the vast amount of coverage of this issue and have tried to find statements that speak to me on a spiritual level. One such piece was written in the Times of Israel by Yehuda Kurtzer, a renowned Jewish educator and thought leader affiliated with the Hartman Institute.

He writes the following:

“You negotiate without ever letting go of the weaponry that makes your negotiating possible, and without ever letting go of the fear which enables you to use that weaponry when needed without hesitation. This is part of the existential state of Jewishness in light of the 20th Century, and many of the preceding centuries too. Keep reciting the ve’hi she’amda of the Passover Seder – the mantra that in every generation they rise up to destroy us – even when you have tools at your disposal to fight against those enemies and not merely rely on divine intervention.

“But in addition to this vigilance, the very act of negotiating is the act of faith in the belief — the deeply Jewish belief — that you can and must commit on an ongoing basis to creating different realities than the ones you have inherited, and different realities than the ones which will be inevitable as the result of the kind of stagnation that has its own momentum. Why else have agency if you don’t take seriously the opportunities that it creates?

“[T]he only way I see forward is to negotiate, to agitate, to activate, to legislate, to investigate — perhaps once in a while, to pause and meditate — to do the kinds of actions in the world that make hope, “Hatikvah,” something which is neither banal nor messianic but the mechanism that changes status quos rather than allowing us to be imprisoned by them. This commitment to hope need not be belittled as naivete; it is in fact, a commitment to responsibility.”
On this Shabbat, we contemplate the significance of words. Words have power. Words can destroy, and words can heal. Words declare war and words declare peace. We are witnessing a challenging juncture in history that will hinge on the interpretation of words of a complex document. May we all be guided by sound judgement in how we ourselves use our words towards one another so that we can contribute to a global atmosphere in which words lead not to violence and fear but to trust and hope.

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