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The Power of Words

Bereishit (Genesis 1:1-6:8 )

by Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis

The significance and holiness of words and speech.

In Parashas Bereishis, we learn many important lessons, but none more powerful and enduring than the significance and holiness of words and speech. The Torah teaches us that God created the world through ten utterances: through Divine speech. With each holy command, our universe was formed. Hashem implanted this gift of speech within man. Of all earth’s creatures, only humans are endowed with the ability to verbally communicate intelligently. We must be ever mindful that, even as God created through “words,” on our own level, we too create through words.

Time and again, the Torah cautions us to be very careful with that which escapes our lips, for, as King Solomon tells us, “Death and life are in the tongue.”[1] Before speaking, stop for a moment and consider how your words impact on others. What sort of environment and relationships do you create with your speech? Do you speak to your family and friends with love and respect? Do you think about what you’re saying before you say it and the effect that it will have on those with whom you communicate? How careful are you with that which escapes from your lips?

There are more commandments in the Torah in regard to speech than to any other mitzvah: seventeen negative and fourteen positive mitzvos. It is through speech that we signaled our commitment to our Covenant at Sinai when we proclaimed, “Na’aseh V’nishma — We shall do it and we shall study it.”[2] It is through speech — prayer — that we speak to God on a daily basis, bringing a positive spiritual influence into the mundane. Yet speech can have terribly negative effects as well: It was through speech that Hitler committed the most unspeakable evil ever to be perpetrated upon mankind. He himself never lifted a weapon; he used his lethal tongue to incite the world to hatred and slaughter. Indeed, “Death and life are in the tongue.”

Think before you speak and ask yourself, “Will my words generate light or darkness, love or hatred, blessing or curse?” The choice is yours to make. Use your Divine gift of speech carefully and wisely, in the service of the Almighty.

The Holy Tongue — Every Word Is Definitive

God invites Adam to identify each and every creature and give them names that reflect their essence.[3] Adam had incredible insight and was able to perceive the function of everything that God brought before him. Thus, when he assigned names to the various animals, he revealed their true natures. For example, when he called the dog “kelev,” the letters of which also spell “k’lev,” which means “like a heart,” he taught us that the dog can be a loyal friend.

Adam’s own name indicates his mission, for if a man is to fulfill his mission, if he is to realize his potential, then first and foremost he must recognize his strengths and weaknesses. And so Adam called himself “Adam” — meaning that God fashioned him from “adamah,” the earth. This designation is rather puzzling, for it is previously written that man was created in the image of God — that God breathed life into him,[4] and that the breath of God became the soul of man. So why didn’t Hashem call him “Neshamah (soul),” rather than “Adam (earth)”?

Adam, with his amazing insight, understood from this that, no matter how spiritual a man may be, he is nevertheless grounded in the physical and material world, and precisely because of that he is vulnerable. Temptations surround him and, in a moment, he can forfeit his spirituality. The slightest wind can blow him away; therefore, he must be forever vigilant and protect the Divine spark with which God endowed him. Moreover, precisely because his soul is the breath of God, he must be careful not to sully it and be ever mindful that he is also “Adam” — made of earth and vulnerable. Also, the word Adam is constituted of the letters of the Hebrew word m’od, meaning very or obsessive, teaching us that if man is not vigilant, he can very easily become obsessive about his material needs and become addicted to them.

We see this teaching reinforced in our Yom Kippur services as well. Yom Kippur is our holiest day, on which we refrain from eating and drinking and from everything that is physical and material. Yet, at the afternoon service, Minchah, as the day draws to its close, the Torah reading deals with the laws of sexual morality. Once again we are reminded that our physical world is fraught with danger — there are so many allurements to which we may fall prey; therefore, we must be constantly alert and safeguard our neshamos (souls) by living moral Torah lives.

Unfortunately, in our world, very little attention is given to our spiritual well-being. Most of our activities revolve around the physical and the material. Our neshamos have become emaciated. The best way to revive and sustain our souls is to enhance our spirituality through prayer, Torah study, and the performance of mitzvos.

The Creation of Woman

In contrast to Adam, of whom it is written, “Vayetzer Hashem es h’adam afar min ha’adamah … — And God fashioned man from the dust of the earth …,”[5] when it comes to the creation of the female, the word “vayiven,”[6] which literally means “to build,” is used. The word “vayiven” shares the same root as the word “binah (understanding).” Binah goes beyond wisdom. Rather, it is an intuitive ability to see beyond — to construct, to build — teaching us that Hashem endowed the female with an added dimension of wisdom and charged her with the most sacred of all responsibilities — caring for children, building future generations. Our Sages were sensitive to this blessing of binah which God granted to the female, and they felt privileged to consult with their wives.

For example, Rabbi Elazar Ben Azariah consulted with his wife before he accepted the invitation to become head of the Sanhedrin, and Rabbi Akiva acted upon the recommendation of his wife, Rachel, who saw his potential to become a Rabbi in Israel and studied Torah with intensity for many long years. Thus, it is not by coincidence that, at the giving of the Torah, God instructed Moses, “Ko somar l’beis Yaakov — Thus shall you speak to the house of Jacob ….”[7] Our Sages explain that “Beis Yaakov” refers to the women. It is the women who were to be charged first, for it is they who possess the ability to inspire future generations and insure commitment. As it has been said, “Educate a woman and you educate a family — a nation …. Educate a man and you educate an individual.”

Accepting Responsibility

It is common knowledge that the very first sin of which man was guilty was partaking of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. Upon closer scrutiny however, we discover that the history of mankind might have turned out differently had man had the courage to accept responsibility for his transgression. Having committed this first sin, Adam attempts to hide from God, whereupon the Almighty calls out, “Ayekah — Where are you?”[8]

But can man hide from God? Does man really believe that God is unaware of his whereabouts? With the question “Ayekah — Where are you?” God was challenging Adam to accept accountability for his sinful deed. “Ayekah” has a double meaning. It also means “Eichah — how,” implying, “How did you do this? Examine your life. How did you depart so quickly from the path that I commanded you?” But instead of looking within himself, addressing the wrong, learning from his mistakes and accepting responsibility, Adam sought a scapegoat, and, showing a lack of hakaras hatov (gratitude; acknowledgment of the good), declared, “The woman that You gave me — she gave me of the tree and I ate.”[9] Eve followed suit. She, too, looked for a scapegoat and claimed that the serpent had enticed her. Our Sages tell us that it was this unwillingness to accept accountability and thus redress the wrong they had done that sealed their fate and caused their banishment from the Garden of Eden.

Let us examine our own lives. Is it possible that when we rebel against God, we, too, try to hide from Him? Is it possible that we, too, scapegoat and hold others responsible for our shortcomings — blaming our homes, our friends, our schools, our workplace, our environment? If we wish to grow spiritually, we must demonstrate our integrity by saying, “I am accountable.”

God is our loving Father Who is willing to forgive us, but in order for Him to do so, we must have the courage to say, “Forgive me, I was wrong.” Indeed, that is the focal point of our Yom Kippur service, when we confess and “come clean” before God without “ifs,” “ands,” or “buts.” When we pray, we must honestly mean the words we say, repent fully in our hearts, humble ourselves before God, and accept the responsibility for our actions. Only then can we be forgiven.

  1. See Proverbs 18:21: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue….”
  2. Exodus 24:7
  3. Genesis 2:19-20
  4. Ibid. 2:7
  5. Ibid. 2:7
  6. Ibid. 2:22
  7. Exodus 19:3
  8. Genesis 3:9
  9. Ibid. 3:12

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