Shabbat Evening Service
From the desk of Rabbi David Lyon
“Devarim: Words and Things”
Some years ago, a Temple friend gave me a copy of the book, “Simple Words: Thinking about What Really Matters in Life” by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, an internationally known scholar of Talmud. In his book, Steinsaltz focuses on the inherent meaning of a list of simple words. In the first chapter, he writes about “Words”.
Steinsaltz begins with a reference to Genesis Rabbah, a commentary on Genesis from the fourth century. In it, the rabbis describe how God consulted with the angels about the creation of man, and the angels didn’t like the idea at all. They rejected the idea of connecting a Divine soul with an earthly body, and concluded that it was bound to fail. After the world and man were created, God again asked the angels to look at what God had done and to give names to all of God’s creations. Again, the angels said that they could not. Then God showed off Man, and asked Adam to name all the creations that passed before him. Adam gave names to all the creatures, to himself, his wife, and to God (Genesis 2:19, 2:23). Steinsaltz teaches that the marvel of Adam, who stood over animals and even angels, wasn’t just that he could talk, but that he created words, simply. Steinsaltz’s point is that Adam didn’t begin with a lexicon of vocabulary and phrases. He chose his words simply and used his words mindfully.
This week’s Torah portion is called Devarim. It means “words” but it also means “things.” It’s a perfect opening for the responsibility we have to choose our words simply and to use our words mindfully, too. When we choose our words well, then our words have the potential to deliver messages that build and connect. With simple words, relationships can begin and grow to convey values we share with family and friends, but also with new acquaintances. When we don’t choose our words well, then they’re just things; they become utilitarian choices that enable us to accomplish a transaction with others, but without regards for anything more than that.
Used mindfully, words convey mutual respect even when they convey difficult messages. That’s why we make a fuss about politically correct or “PC” words. It has nothing to do with sanitizing our language as if one’s mother was washing out her child’s mouth with soap. It has nothing to do with avoiding the truth, as if anyone isn’t completely aware of the meaning of a carefully crafted message. Rather, words that once suited us in the past conveyed messages and made inferences about people and issues that we’ve long ago learned more about and grew to respect. Today, those words are nothing but things. So-called “PC” words match our contemporary sensibilities about race, sexuality, equality, and much more. It’s in the power of these words that we express our willingness to grow our vocabulary and discover the power to be more fully human; that is, above the creatures Adam named and even the angels.
Steinsaltz closes his chapter on words by reflecting on Adam and Eve’s speaking relationship. He cites the Midrash, which explains that Man and Woman were first created as one body; later God cut that being in half, thereby making a separate Man and a separate Woman (Steinsaltz, p. 25). It marked the first time they could hold a conversation between them. Steinsaltz writes, “When I speak with another being who is similar to me, yet different, I begin not only to understand the other, but also to understand what I myself am speaking about” (Steinsaltz, p. 25). The rabbi admits that he doesn’t know what language Adam spoke with Eve, with the animals or the angels; but, he concludes, “I am sure it was simple words.”
Steinsaltz helps us know that so much can be revealed about us in simple words. How will you choose your “devarim” as you speak to those whom you know and others who are new to you? And what will your words help you learn about yourself as others learn about you, too? God’s trust in humankind began with words, simply chosen, that reveal all that we can be, together.