The spiritual power of words
Emor — Leviticus 21:1-24:23
I was raised in the infancy of television and the silver age of comedy: not all the way back to silent films, but in the dazzling array of comic geniuses like Jackie Gleason, Sam Levinson, and Red Skelton. Sure, it was sexist in its assumed gender roles (it was the 1950s), but otherwise, the humor of that era stands out, as being so good-naturedly wholesome. It made fun of the human condition the way loving parents tell funny tales of their children struggling to master the intricacies of growing up. Red Skelton ended each program with “God bless.”
Maybe even God tells jokes that way on some heavenly stage where angels gather to take time out. A famous Talmudic tale describes the rabbis voting God down in a halachic debate; God chuckles over the way “My children have defeated me!” God, too, apparently laughs good-naturedly about us human “children” trying to attain our independence.
Stand-up comedy today is usually nothing like that. It is angry and crude, an exercise in profanity.
I am neither puritanical nor a prude, but I value Judaism’s insistent warning against allowing our speech to sink into the mud. Words are our surest connection to God, we say. When we gave up sacrifice, we adopted words of prayer instead. Physically, we may be what we eat, but morally and spiritually, we are what we say. Our habits of speech define our character. Language either lifts us up from the muck of life or drags us deeper within it.
Before our most central prayer, the Amidah, we say, “God, open my lips that I may declare your praise”; and when we end, we add, “God, keep my tongue from speaking evil.”
Here we are immersed in the period of s’firah, counting the days upward from Passover to Shavuot, from slavery to Sinai, from degradation to dignity (as our Passover lore describes it). R. Yisra’el of Ruzhin rearranges the letters S’FiRaH to get HaSaPiR (“f” and “p” are the same in Hebrew), the word for God’s throne (Ezekiel 1:26) that Moses sees too (Exodus 24:10) as the very essence of “purity.” The s’firah is a time to strive after purity.
And we best do that, says the Vizhnitzer Rebbe, by watching what we say, for s’firah comes also from sofer, the scribes who “counted” each and every word of Torah, and were careful to speak nothing inconsistent with it.
Almost immediately after mandating the s’firah (Leviticus 23:15), the Torah describes a man who is executed for cursing in God’s name. But what’s so wrong with what he did? Surely invoking God name as a curse doesn’t actually work; God is hardly a slave to our human passions, waiting around to be summoned like a genie in a bottle.
The issue is language. Nakav, the Hebrew verb used here for “curse,” can also mean “pierce” or “hollow out.” By vulgarizing God’s name, we hollow it out, as if piercing a hole through it and emptying it of all its grandeur and nobility.
We use the same idiom when we speak of “hollow vows.” What good is a promise if its integrity drains from it the moment it is spoken? Language affirms a world, and us within it, as decent, noble, hopeful, and kind; or decadent, shabby, miserable, and nasty.
The s’firah asks us to measure not just days and weeks, but words and sentences that escape our lips. Language should never increase vulgarity, stoke anger, or pander to the basest instincts of humanity at its worst.
The s’firah counts upward toward Shavuot, when we will receive the Torah at Sinai as Moses did. Like Moses, we may catch a glimpse of the sapir, the throne that glistens like glass in all its purity, and if we do, it would be nice to see our reflection there, equally pure. We should arrive at Shavuot knowing that the words we use are deserving of the Torah we get.
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is cofounder of Synagogue 3000 and a professor of liturgy, worship, and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.