Susannah Heschel, the daughter of the late, great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, once recalled a story about her father. When she was very little, Susannah asked her father how God created the world. Rabbi Heschel responded by telling Susannah the story of the opening chapters of Genesis, about how God created light by saying “Let there be light,” about how God created plants and trees by saying “Let the earth sprout vegetation,” about how God simply had to say “Let the earth bring forth every kind of living animal,” and it was so. “God,” Rabbi Heschel told his daughter, “created our world…with words.”
An intrepid kid, Susannah quickly shot back at her father, “When I build, I build with my blocks. When those men built our house, they used bricks and cement. Why did God create the world with words?” Rabbi Heschel stroked his long white beard, smiled, and responded, “That’s simple: It was to teach us an important lesson: Just as God created our world with words, our words create worlds, too. So we must use our words very carefully, because kind words create a kind world, but mean words create a mean world.”
I want to talk to us today about this idea, that our words create worlds.
In the years following that story, Rabbi Heschel was known for reminding audiences that the Holocaust did not begin with the building of crematoria; Hitler did not come to power with tanks and guns; it all began with uttering evil words, with defamation, with propaganda.
Our words have tremendous power. What we say can transform someone’s day…and, sometimes, even their whole life. We can say things that build people, that encourage them to become more whole; or, we can say things that destroy them.
When we are harsh or judgmental, when we point out another persons flaws, when we emphasize what another person is doing wrong instead of what they’re doing right, we can break people down. How many of us have had someone say to us, “You are such an idiot” or “You’re so selfish?” And how many of us who answered “yes” to that question carry that brokenness around each day? How many of us have been devastated by a critical boss, or by a judgmental coworker in ways that have negatively impacted our confidence in our ability to do our jobs? The book of Proverbs teaches us, “boteh k’madkerot harev,” harsh words strike at us like swords. Words, like weapons, have the power destroy.
And words also have the power to build. When we tell someone “I am so grateful that you’re in my life,” or “I love you,” those words can help heal broken hearts, they can make people feel more whole. We learn again from Proverbs, “da’agah b’lev ish yash’henah, v’davar tov yis’mehenah / If a person seeks to ease anxiety in his heart, let him turn it into joy with a good word.” Our brokenness can be turned into wholeness with a good word.
I invite us to commit, today, to find more opportunities to make statements to people in our lives – family, spouses, friends, coworkers, employees…even acquaintances and strangers – that will make them feel more whole. There are enough people in the world who speak words of hurt and destruction, who tell us what they don’t like about us, about what they think we’re doing wrong. Let’s make our words, and the worlds we create through them, holy.
When I was working at Beit T’Shuvah, a Jewish rehab facility in Los Angeles, one of my clients was a guy named Eddie. For much of Eddie’s life he heard parents, foster parents, and other family tell him that he wasn’t smart enough, that he wasn’t capable enough, that he would never amount to anything. Now, you need to know that Eddie is none of those things: he is handsome, affable, sensitive and smart; an incredibly talented musician; an excellent surfer. He had a talent for engineering. But, as Joseph Goebbels famously said, “If you repeat a lie often enough, people will start to believe it.” So Eddie lived most of his life believing that he was dumb, that he was incompetent, that he was a failure.
And when I met Eddie, he was about as broken as they come. It wasn’t so much the drug-use. See, what I found with Eddie – in fact, what I found with most of my clients at Beit T’Shuvah – is that the addiction was just a symptom of the disease. Eddie used drugs because it helped him feel whole in the brokenness caused by years of being told he was a failure. So when I identified the root of Eddie’s problems, I thought that the only possible way to repair his life was with “Positivity Therapy.” Every week, I would say something positive about him, something that would build him up. I would tell him how smart he was, how impressed I was with him, how grateful I was for his friendship. Those words were easy to offer: all of them were 100% true, and none of them cost me anything. Heck, some days, I would wonder to myself why I was spending five years and six figures to go to rabbinical school just to learn that people can be healed if you say kind things about them.
But they had an impact. Slowly, but surely, like the thawing of a deep frost, I began to watch Eddie’s confidence grow. Initially the guy who always sat alone in the corner, never interacting with others, Eddie began to offer surfing lessons. Then he joined the Beit T’Shuvah band. And now he’s running his own sober living facility. He’s not perfect. I wouldn’t say that my words permanently healed him, but they helped to put him on a path to healing and wholeness. And that’s the power of our words.
This week’s parashah, Mattot, speaks this powerful truth. The opening section of the parashah discusses nedarim, vows one makes in God’s name. The Torah teaches that these vows impose serious obligations; once made, they can never be broken. The opening lines of the parashah read:
Ish ki yador neder la-Adonai o hi-shava sh’vuah la’asor issar al nafsho lo yahel d’varo, k’khol ha-yotzei mipiv ya’aseh.
When a person makes a vow to God or declares an oath, making something forbidden to himself, he must not break his pledge. He must carry out all that has crossed his lips.
The great medieval commentator, Rashi, points out that the Torah uses the word yahel, break: “lo yahel d’varo,” he must not break his pledge. But the better word would have been ya’avor. The verse should have said: lo ya’avor d’varo, he must not violate his pledge. According to Rashi, the Torah uses the verb yahel because of its similarity to another Hebrew word, ye-halel, meaning to profane. Rashi says, “lo yahel d’varo, c’mo lo ye-halel d’varo, lo ya’aseh d’varav hulin,” that, while the contextual meaning of the verse is that the person uttering the vow should not break his oath, the verse implies something much, much deeper: when we speak, we must not make our words profane, hol. The opposite of hol, profane, is kodesh, holy. In this way, the Torah teaches us that our words can be tools for bringing profanity – or holiness – into the world, and so our task is to make our words holy.
What does it mean to make our words holy?
Etymologically, the English word “holy” comes from the Old English word hālig, meaning whole. And this is, I think, not too far off from the sense of the original Hebrew word, kodesh, because that word is often used to describe that which is like God. God is the kadosh barukh hu – The Holy Blessed One. God instructs us in the Torah, kedoshim t’hiyu ki kadosh ani Adonai Elokeikhem / You shall be holy for I, Adonai your God, am holy. And what is God’s defining characteristic in the Jewish tradition? Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Ehad / Listen, O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is one. God’s holiness is about God’s oneness, God’s unity…in other words, God’s holiness is about God’s wholeness. So too, our being holy is about our becoming more whole, and about helping to make others more whole.
Holy words, then, are those words that make ourselves, others, and the world more whole. Holy words are words that help build us up, while profane words are words that tear us apart. Our challenge, according to the parashah, is to commit to making our words holy, to say only those things that will repair and restore.
So I want to offer three important things for us to maximize the impact of our holy words.
First, relationship doesn’t matter. Holy words can repair us regardless of who they come from. I heard a story the other day about a woman who was going through a painful divorce. With her husband leaving her, she was feeling depressed. Deep down, she felt so unattractive, that no one would ever want to be with her. And at one of her lowest moments, she happened to be in the checkout line at the grocery store. As the cashier was ringing up her items, the cashier – who had never seen this woman or met her before – looked at her customer, smiled, and said, “Ma’am…I just have to tell you: you are so beautiful.” Just a five second, offhand comment. To the cashier, it was no big deal. She was just calling it like she saw it, just being friendly. But what the cashier didn’t know was how much of an impact her comment had. At the moment when this woman was feeling her most unattractive, her most unwanted, the cashier’s – a complete stranger’s – holy words helped put her back on a path to wholeness.
And that’s a power unique to holy words. Profane words hurt more when they come from someone closer to us, especially if it’s an authority figure. When a parent says, “You’re a screw-up,” when a teacher says, “What a dumb question,” when a boss says, “Quit being so lazy,” those words break us much more profoundly than if a stranger were to come up to us and tell us those same things. The closer your relationship with someone, the more crucial your profane words become. But you could be a complete stranger and heal someone’s brokenness with a holy word. And that’s what I invite us to do today. Doesn’t matter who you are, doesn’t matter who they are. It just matters what your words are.
Second, timing matters. During my first week here, I called my Mom in tears because I accidentally missed a meeting, because I thought I blew it in a counseling session, because I thought I had given a poor sermon. Now, I can’t tell you how many times my Mom has told me that she loves my sermons, that she thinks I’m a great rabbi, that I have incredible things in store for me; but the other week, when my Mom offered me her holy words, they had much more impact. It is when we are most broken that a healing word can matter the most. Take the woman who was going through the divorce. Chances are, she’d been told many times in her life that she was beautiful. But at that moment, when she was feeling most broken, most unattractive, those holy words had a much greater impact. Friends, when we see someone who is going through a rough time, that’s when our holy words matter most. When we see someone who is broken, we must not hesitate to offer our words of restoration and repair.
Third, while timing matters, there is no time like the present. Rabbi Jack Riemer tells a story of a man who stayed at his wife’s graveside long after the funeral had ended. All the other mourners had left. The rabbi approached the man and said, “The service is long over, it’s time for you to leave.” The man waved him away, saying, “You don’t understand. I loved my wife.” The rabbi answered, “I am sure you did, but you have been here a very long time. You should go now.” Again the husband said, “You don’t understand. I loved my wife.” Once more, the rabbi urged him to leave. Finally, the man explained, “But you don’t understand. I loved my wife…and once, I almost told her.” Friends, I don’t want this to happen to any of us. Sure, it’s good to offer a healing word to someone at the time they need it most, but we must not wait for just the right moment. The time for making our words holy, the time for offering words of restoration and repair, is right now.
All around us, there are people who are broken and in need of repair. And we can offer them a path to wholeness through our holy words. For our words, indeed, create worlds. All it takes is a simple, “I’m proud of you” or “I love you” or “You are such a blessing in my life,” and we can transform someone’s day, and maybe even their life. Every one of us can be healers of broken hearts, menders of shattered souls. And it doesn’t take any training, it doesn’t take any money. It doesn’t even take much time. All it takes is a holy word. Let’s go into the coming week committed to making our words holy. When we do, we help God repair those broken hearts all around us. We help God repair our own broken hearts. And I believe we help God repair our broken world! Shabbat Shalom.