Words have power. They can cut deep, creating lasting scars in one’s psyche, or they can comfort, console, encourage, and inspire. Words can also convince and persuade when used in a cogent argument, as when the daughters of Tzelafchad approached Moshe to voice their claim of inheritance over their father’s land in last week’s parasha. God affirmed the justness and rightness of their words, “Properly have the daughters of Tzelafchad spoken,” and the law was changed. In this week’s parasha, the tribes of Reuven and Gad approach Moshe and make a reasonable argument as to why they should inherit the land east of the Jordan. Moshe initially resists, but through promises, conditions, and stipulations, they come to an agreement, and the request is granted. This is the power of words to influence someone’s thinking, to bring about a meeting of minds, and to affect another’s actions.
As great as it is, this is a mundane power, but as evidenced in Parashat Balak, words also contain metaphysical and spiritual power. The subtext of the entire narrative is obvious: had Balak succeeded in cursing Bnei Yisrael, great tragedy would have befallen them. God did us a great kindness by not allowing those words to be spoken, “But the Lord thy God would not hearken unto Balaam; but the Lord thy God turned the curse into a blessing unto thee, because the Lord thy God loved thee” (Devarim 23:6).
But words do more than impart a blessing or a curse; words create our reality. It was with words that God created the world. And as human beings created in the image of God, we have the ability to create spiritual realities through our words, to shape the world in which we live, and to bring sanctity into the world.
This theme opens this week’s parasha: “If a man vows a vow unto the Lord, or swears an oath to bind his soul with a bond; he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth” (Bamidbar 30:3). The Torah mentions an oath and a vow. Making an oath is swearing about the past or the future in God’s name, calling on God to witness the veracity of your statement, or that you will keep to your word. It is less about creating something new than it is about using God’s name falsely. A vow, on the other hand, is understood by the Rabbis to be a way of using one’s words to create a new, metaphysical reality. Just as a person can sanctify an animal with his words and make it holy and fit to be brought as a sacrifice, so too can he imbue any object with holy-like status, making its use or any derived benefit forbidden.
It is not obvious if or how vows can also bring holiness into the world. The Talmud makes it clear, however, that many people expressed their religiosity in this way, as a form of personal expression beyond conforming to the laws and rituals by which we are all bound. Imposing fasts (also, according to the Rabbis, a type of vow) and increasing the scope of forbidden foods and pleasures are ways to expand and deepen one’s religious reality, at least to the degree that one experiences religiosity as a form of self-denial and separation from the world.
The Rabbis were not always happy with this form of religious expression. At times they critiqued the very notion of self-denial as a religious goal, stating that, in the end, we will be accountable for the ways in which we failed to derive pleasure from the world that God has given us (Yerushalmi Kiddushin, ch. 4). A story is told that Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch was criticized for going to Switzerland on vacation. He was asked, “Why not stay at home and learn more Torah?” Rav Hirsch replied, “After 120 years, I don’t want to go up to heaven and have God say to me: ‘Shimshon, what about My Alps? Have you seen My Alps?’”
At other times the Rabbis’ critique was directed at the way in which this personal expression of religiosity undercut the shared forms of religious expression: “Whoever takes a vow is as if he has built a bamah, a private altar. And whoever fulfils it is as if he has offered a sacrifice on the altar” (Nedarim 22a). Worship at a private altar is acceptable if there is no Temple, but once there is a Temple, such acts represent a breaking away from shared worship and a diminishing of its importance.
Words, then, can create metaphysical realities, but that is not necessarily a good thing. The goal is to use them to increase and reinforce the kedusha in the world rather than compete with or undercut it.
Consider Shabbat. The sanctity of Shabbat comes from God and hearkens all the way back to the first days of creation: “And God blessed the Sabbath day, and sanctified it.” Nevertheless, with our words we can add to and intensify that sanctity. We make kiddush, verbally recognizing and pronouncing its sanctity. This act, coming from us, makes the kedusha of Shabbat more real; it connects us to Shabbat in a personal way. And when we share thoughts on the parasha or sing zemirot, the kedusha of Shabbat is deepened and intensified, giving us a form of individual religious expression and a way to make that kedusha our own. We can even accept Shabbat early, bringing the sanctity of Shabbat into the week with our words. But our words can also do the opposite, creating a reality that competes with the sanctity of Shabbat: “And you shall honor it from not doing your own ways … or speaking your own mundane words” (Yesha’yahu 58:13). If we speak of weekday matters like business, profession, and money, or even if we speak of trivial matters rather than holy ones, we have—through our words—diminished the sanctity of Shabbat. We have made it that much more like any other day of the week.
In so many ways, our words create the world in which we live. This is certainly true for ritual words like the kiddush of Shabbat, which, as we have seen, brings greater sanctity to the day. We make blessings over a piece of fruit and change it from a human product or something taken for granted into a gift from God. We make a blessing over mitzvot and transform them from rote ritual into a religious act imparting sanctity to the one who performs them (“Blessed are You, God, who has sanctified us with Your mitzvot and commanded us…”). We make blessings over lifecycle events: At a bris we make a kiddush-like brakha over a cup of wine, making this into a sanctified, covenantal act. And we do the same at a wedding, turning the marriage into a kiddushin, a sanctified bond that brings holiness to the entire Jewish people (“Who sanctifies His people Israel through chuppah and kiddushin”).
But words need not be ritualized to shape our reality. When we say our daily prayers with sincerity, we bring God into our world. When we say im yirtzeh Hashem, God willing, and we really mean it, we bring God into our world. When we pray on account of someone who is sick or offer up a few brief, personal words to God, words of thanks or supplication, we bring God into our world. And in the home, when we speak to our children of a life of serving God and Klal Yisrael, of learning Torah and of keeping mitzvot, we shape their reality and our own; we create sources of holiness and meaning. But if we speak of a world in which the wealthy are to be envied, in which getting ahead is what matters, then we rob their world and ours of its kedusha. If we are not careful, our vows, our speech acts, can be like the building of private altars, creating a world populated by sources of meaning and value that compete with the sources of true kedusha.
Perhaps Abraham Joshua Heschel said it best in The Insecurity of Freedom:
One of the major symptoms of the general crisis existent in our world today is our lack of sensitivity to words. We use words as tools. We forget that words are a repository of the spirit. The tragedy of our times is that the vessels of the spirit are broken. We cannot approach the spirit unless we repair the vessels. Reverence for words—an awareness of the wonder of words, of the mystery of words—is an essential prerequisite for prayer. By the word of God the world was created.
Words create the world in which we live. It is up to us to decide what that world will look like.