Right Words for Crazy Times
We need to spend time learning Torah now more than ever.
We all know that words are powerful. We can use them to lift others up, boost their self-esteem and make a positive impact on the world. Likewise, we are all conversant in the potential damage caused by thoughtless or insensitive speech, the long-term hurt that can result from gossip or slander.
But that isn't the only power words have. Words are descriptive. They help us communicate with others. They are our basic tools for connection. So what happens when you run out of words or when there are no more words left to use?
There is a tradition that we are only given a certain number of words to use in our lifetime, so we want to be extra careful how and when we use them. Whether this refers to an exact number or not, the message is clear.
Likewise, we can overuse words so that we rob them of their meaning. If we tell our first high school romance that we love them – and continue to use the word love for every relationship after that – what’s left for the person we actually marry, the one we’re committed to and want spend our lives with? The word love has lost its power, its poignancy, its ability to deepen our connection.
We can also diminish the power of words by using them too frequently. If everyone we disagree with is labelled evil what word do we use for the Hitlers and Stalins of the world, the mass murderers, the people whose goals and actions are truly the embodiment of the darkest forces existent in our world?
It seems like we've gotten a little too cavalier, a little too lazy in our use of words. We're not so careful when and how we use them. We don’t really focus on the meaning; we’re not concerned about overuse. But in the process, we end up harming ourselves and weakening our communication and thereby our relationships.
And now we have a new word problem related to our current pandemic. We've run out of words because of the sameness of the days, because of our ongoing bewilderment, because of our continued powerlessness.
Everyday I speak to my kids across the miles and phone lines and we say some version of “Crazy times.” “Who could have imagined?” “I thought plagues were for the history books.” Everyday I run into neighbors as we take our evening walk and we say some version of “Crazy times.” “Who could have imagined?” “I thought plagues were for the history books.” Every night I teach a class on zoom and we begin by saying some version of “Crazy times.” “Who could have imagined?” “I thought plagues were for the history books.”
We want so badly to connect, to commiserate, to feel less alone in our challenges. But we’ve run out of words. Every day I peruse the news desperate for something good and uplifting to say to change the conversation (positive results from phase 1 of the Moderna vaccine trial for example!) but frequently it’s just some version of the conversation recited above (with some additional tragedies thrown in).
What’s left to do? What’s left to say? Are there any new words or phrases out there?
Here's what I think is the solution. As I said to my class last night, after we went through the requisite kvetching and moaning, after we bewailed the fact that California had shut down yet again and the light at the end of the tunnel had receded even further into the distance, “We need to learn Torah now more than ever.”
The words that are new, that can give us solace, that can uplift us and refresh us, don’t come from the newspapers, or social media, or even our friendly and well-meaning neighbors. What truly works is immersing ourselves in the timeless words and ideas of Torah, the ideas that never change no matter our external circumstances. And then to use these words, these profound truths, to attain wisdom and deepen our life's meaning, to strengthen our community, and to connect to the Almighty.
It requires a little more effort than just repeating the “Crazy times” mantra. It requires a little more thought than the glib “Who could have imagined?” It requires deeper study than commenting “I thought plagues were for the history books.” But it’s worth it. Because through focusing on the Almighty’s words as expressed through His Torah, we uplift ourselves and everyone around us.
This is the true and deepest power of words. This is language at its best. And holiest. This is where words bring their greatest reward and pleasure. I might still begin all my conversations with the old standards but I hope I will continue them with a discussion of some ideas from the Torah that will give a positive shape and spin to my day and my attitude. Even if we do live in crazy times…