16 Jan 2018

Tuesday Morning Torah – January 16, 2018

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Over these past few days I have been thinking a lot about the power of words.  In very different ways- both the headlines of the past week, and commemoration of the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. have called to mind the way that language can be used as either a positive or negative force in society.  
In Judaism, we are constantly reminded of the power and importance of our words. The Psalmist taught that both “death and life are in the power of the tongue (Psalms 18:21).” And while it is true that our Judaism places importance on both words and our actions, in typical Jewish fashion it is fair to say that both are considered to be of utmost importance.
Pirkei Avot, the sayings of our sages teaches us that one of the ways that we might be able to access the richness and depth of the Torah is through “ordered speech” (Avot 6:6). It also reminds us that true wisdom can be found in the ways in which we choose our words (Avot 5:9). Expanding on these ideas in an essay on “orderly speech,” Dr. Alan Morinis reminds us that:
The positive potential of speech is revealed in Jewish thought in the most dramatic way. The very creation of the world and everything that is in it was accomplished by means of words alone.  “And God said, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light….”
 
Speech has that much power to be creative. In Hebrew the word davar means both “word” and “thing,” teaching us that something that is spoken brings an actual reality into existence. According to Rabbeinu Yonah of Gerona (1180-1263), when you are careful about what words you speak, you sanctify yourself like a holy vessel used in the temple service…
 
The opposite is true of negative speech (lashon ha’ra), which is so reviled in Jewish thought that it is said to be a form of murder, and not just that, murder of three people- the one who utters the negative words, the one about whom they are speaking, and the one who hears them. The laws of negative speech are many, but they boil down to one principle: Do not harm with your speech….  (Morinis, With Heart In Mind, 29-30)
Towards the end of every Amidah, our meditative silent prayer that is traditionally said three times a day- we ask God to help ensure that “the words of our mouths, and the meditations of our heart are acceptable to God. The message is clear: Our words have significance. Our words have power. Our words can be used to either create and inspire, or to take down and destroy. Our words, as often as possible, should be used with care and with the remembrance that the person who we are speaking too, or about, is also a creature of God.
How do you use your words on a regular basis?  Are you careful with your speech? Do you watch what you say in certain settings, but not in others? Can you challenge yourself to be careful with your speech all of the time, instead of just some of the time? Do you gossip too much? Are you careful with your tone? In general, do you think before you speak? These are just some of the questions that our Judaism invites us to consider on a daily basis. 
Take time this week to consider your speech. Challenge yourself to speak with extra care and see how it changes your perspective. 
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