Do Our Words Reflect What We Believe?
Keeping Connected October 2019
Despite the cultural differences that exist among people, there are many things that are shared by all of humanity. One of these traits is the existential desire to understand the “Big Questions” of life: How did the universe come to be? How was humanity created? How did life begin? Why is there death? Why is there evil in the world? Although our conclusions may be different, and although our mythologies and explanations may run in diverse directions, the desire to understand our beginnings binds us together.
From a Jewish perspective, in trying to make meaning of these existential questions, we learn in the earliest passages of our Torah that words have a unique and profound power. In the midst of the chaos that was at the beginning of time, we hear the text of the Torah record, “And God SAID, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light”, and with the articulation of words and language, creation came to be. God continued to speak, “Let there be…” and creation unfolded. This is a foundational principle of Judaism; words have profound power, power enough to create and power enough to destroy.
The fifth book of the Torah is called Devarim, which literally means both “words” and “things”. In a sense, the word creates the thing that is being described. The midrash notes that the word Devarim can be divided into two words: Davar meaning word and Yam meaning ocean. What is the connection that the midrashic rabbis are trying to make? “Words, like the ocean, can be stormy or calm. An evil mouth, like turbulent waves, can destroy and kill. A sharp tongue, like deep water, is feared. Good words, like pearls on the ocean floor, are precious…” Another rabbi noted the similarity between the word Devarim and the word Devorim, meaning bees. In this midrash, when a person slights or makes fun of another person, especially in public, their words can hurt like the terrible sting of a bee.
Words have profound power: the power to destroy a reputation, ruin a relationship and to cause violence. Words, however, also have the strength to elevate, inspire, heal and enlighten. Yes, words are potent and Judaism has always understood that we must be ever mindful of this reality. As a rabbi and a teacher, I often speak about words and their meaning, connecting lessons that range from l’shon ha-rah/gossip and lying to civil discourse and mindful expression.
Recently I had such a lesson with my Kitah Hey students, in particular about the function and potential of the words in our prayers. Together we looked through the siddur/prayer book, finding words and passages that reflected our beliefs and values, as well as identifying prayers that did not resonate with who we are and our beliefs. I was deeply impressed by the students and the seriousness with which they explored these ideas.
We then turned to one of our holiest of prayers, the Kaddish. The final line of the traditional version of the Kaddish reads, “Oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya-aseh shalom, aleinu v’al kol Yisrael.” These words are translated as “May God who caused peace to reign in the high heavens, create peace for us and on all Israel.” We compared this version of the Kaddish, with the way it is written in our new High Holiday machzor. In this text, there is an additional phrase, “v’al kol yoshvei teiveil”, meaning “and all who dwell on the earth.”
It was very moving to hear the students discuss these two versions; one which was printed in our siddur about 20 years ago and this newer version of the prayer. We talked about the subtle difference in their meanings and what it means about the Reform Jewish community that the rabbis and editors of the new machzor chose to change these words. How does this additional phrase, added into the ancient text of the Kaddish, reflect the values and ethics we hold dear? This conversation really clicked with the students and together we understood that we should find a way to change the words in our Shabbat prayer book. We did not feel that the prayer should exclusively pray for peace on the Jewish people and that we wanted a congruency between our beliefs and our words.
I showed them small stickers that we have created that could be put into the Shabbat prayer book thereby updating the version of the Kaddish we say each week. When I asked if any of them would like to participate in the mitzvah of updating our siddurim, many hands went up. If you too, are interested in helping in this effort, please let me know at email@example.com. We will meet one Sunday morning and together, with the simple insertion of the stickers, mindfully, reinforce the power of the words we say and pray. Our prayers should be intentional and reflect what is in our hearts and minds. “May peace come to be a gift for all of us, for all of Israel and for all of humanity.”
Rabbi Shoshana M. Perry