The Power of Speech
July 21, 2023
By Rus Devorah Wallen

I’m Rus Devorah Wallen, and I’d like to share my T for 2, my Torah thought for two minutes, more or less.

This week is Parshas D’vorim, the first portion of the book of D’vorim – Deuteronomy. D’vorim stands out from the other books of the Torah since the previous books feature direct divine speech to Moshe or the patriarchs, Deuteronomy begins with these words: “Eileh ha d’vorim asher diber Moshe el kol Yisroel be’ever haYardein – These are the words that Moshe spoke to all of Israel on the other side of the Jordan river.” In this book, Moses recounts the events leading up to this culmination in his own words, making it a unique fusion of the upper and lower realms, where Moshe through speech assists the Jewish people in becoming partners in the ongoing process of revelation. The name of the book itself, D’vorim, meaning “words,” underlines the profound significance of speech. In Greek, this book is called Deuteronomy, which means “the second telling of the law.” Both names emphasize the central role words play in transmission and revelation.

The Torah begins with God’s creation through speech, as we see, “And God said, let there be light, and there was light,” along with the other divine utterances, such as “Let there be a firmament” and “Let the waters be gathered, etc.” Additionally, in the hierarchy of creation – mineral, vegetable, animal, and human, according to the Torah, we are considered the pinnacle and called a special word that does not mean human, but “m’daber – the speaker.” Since we are created in the image of God, who brings the world into being through speech, this special ability grants us the capacity to effect change in the world through words as well.

We know that words can have both constructive and destructive consequences. Shlomo HaMelech – King Solomon the wise, in Proverbs said, “Maves v’chayim b’yad lashon – Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” In the narrative of the spies, we see a painful example of the destructive power of words. When they brought back a negative report about the Promised Land, it demoralized the Israelites, causing them to lose faith and miss the opportunity to enter the land at that time. This tragic outcome demonstrates the profound impact of words on attitudes, beliefs, and actions.

A timeless story, with alternative details and attributed to various sources conveys a similar lesson. A student approached his teacher, expressing remorse for speaking ill of someone. Seeking reparation, the teacher instructed him to climb to the roof with a feather pillow on a windy day, and let the wind disperse the feathers around the town square. After successfully completing the task, the student proudly informed the master. Now, however, the sage instructed him to retrieve all the scattered feathers and return them to the pillowcase. Like feathers carried by the wind, harmful words cannot be retracted, retrieved, or erased.

Let us be mindful of the impact our speech can have on ourselves and others. By using our words wisely, promoting unity, understanding, and kindness, we become active participants in the ongoing process of revelation. As we harness the transformative power of speech, we become G-d’s partners in creation of a more sensitive and compassionate world.

Rus Devorah Wallen is an accomplished musician, performer, social worker, psychotherapist, and educator.

The Power of Speech - Jewish Thought of the week 2022