“Every day, consciously and unconsciously, human beings scatter heaps of words to the wind . . .”
— Haim Nachman Bialik
We live in a world in which we are constantly pummeled with words — words of pundits and preachers, politicians and salespeople, promoters and self-promoters of every persuasion.
It feels increasingly difficult to sift through all this verbiage for words that matter. It feels increasingly difficult to discern the difference between sincerity and spin – even in our own speech, let alone the speech of others.
This presidential election season has been a particularly troubling time for people who take language seriously. We are confronted with a candidate whose primary appeal seems to be his willingness to speak with what is often characterized as a kind of brash and bold honesty. His speech garners attention, and in some cases admiration, by its stark contrast with more familiar patterns of political discourse in this country – words so carefully crafted as to feel both untrustworthy and uninspiring, an overcooked mix of equivocation and evasion. His speech also taps into current debates about “political correctness” – a growing sense that it has all gone too far, a kind of simmering frustration (now boiling over more and more frequently into openly expressed rage) at having to be so damn careful all the time about what we say, lest we offend the more sensitive among us.
Whatever the outcome of this election, I fear that something very dangerous has been unleashed – an infatuation with a kind of bombastic speech that is ultimately neither honest nor bold, but immature, crass, degrading, and reckless in ways that may have catastrophic consequences for our nation and for our world.
It is tempting in the face of all this to retreat into silence. Even as I write these words, I worry that I am just contributing to the problem. Maybe what the world needs now is not more noise, but more quiet—the blank page, the unspoken word, the inclined ear, the listening heart.
It seems particularly fitting in this season of teshuvah – of repentance and return — that we are commanded first and foremost to hear the blast of the shofar, to move into the new year in a state of heightened attention, to listen for that which calls out to us and, wordlessly, touches our hearts.
Our relationship to language as human beings has been fraught from the beginning. The first words that tumble out of Adam’s mouth in the Garden of Eden are words of wonder, gratitude, recognition, and love. “This one at last, bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh,” man says upon encountering woman for the first time. Words are born of the need to give voice to inner feeling; they express the longing for —- and make possible the experience of — human connection.
But very (very!) soon after, we discover that language can be put to other uses as well. “Ayeka? Where are you?” God calls out to the first human being in the Garden of Eden, after Adam and Eve have eaten from the forbidden fruit. “I was hiding because I was afraid,” Adam says, in a poignantly partial confession, using language to reveal that there is something he is trying to conceal.
As the Divine-human dialogue continues, Adam discovers still more ways of using his newly found words. God’s questions become more direct, “Who told you that you were naked? Did you eat of the tree from which I had forbidden you to eat?” And Adam’s response reveals a kind of growing verbal versatility: “The woman You put at my side – she gave me of the tree, and I ate.”
Ah! He is learning. Now he has discovered that he can confess and conveniently cast blame elsewhere at the same time! How useful! Yes, I ate – but it was Eve’s fault. And, yes, I ate – but wasn’t this whole thing a bit of a set-up to begin with, since it was You, God, who put her at my side?!
On this Shabbat – the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — the haftarah, the prophetic portion begins, with a call to teshuvah (to repentance and return): “Shuva—return to God,” the prophet Hosea beckons us. The door is open. We are standing on the threshold, invited to enter.
How do we begin? The prophet’s suggestion is striking: “K’chu imachem devarim—take with you words, and return to God.”
What words is Hosea talking about here? And what would it mean for us to really heed his call – to bring “the offerings of our lips” as part of our process of personal and collective teshuvah this year?
Some biblical commentators say the prophet is talking about words of confession. Teshuvah begins, we are being reminded, with the simple act of acknowledging our failings. Is there something you feel badly about, something for which you are seeking forgiveness? Begin by putting it into words. Think about who you need to tell. If you’re not sure, or you’re not ready yet, start by telling God.
Other commentators say the prophet is talking about words of prayer: Teshuvah begins with the simple act of acknowledging our longings. Is there something you are hoping for, something you want to change in your life or in the world? Begin by putting it into words. Say a prayer. That is the only offering that God seeks – no animal sacrifices, just the sincere offerings of our lips.
Both interpretations draw on our tradition’s deep intuition about the power of words. Whether in confession or in prayer, whether in our public discourse or in our private conversations, whether online or in person – our words create worlds. Baruch she’amar v’haya ha’olam, we pray each morning, liturgically alluding to the biblical account of creation— Blessed is the One who spoke, and the world came into being. And so, we, fashioned in the divine image, are summoned in this season of teshuvah to ask ourselves: What kind of world are we creating with our words?
Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld has been dean of the Hebrew College Rabbinical School since 2006. She previously worked as a Hillel rabbi at Tufts, Yale and Harvard universities, and has been a summer faculty member for the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel since 1993. From 2011 to 2013, she was named to Newsweek’s list of Top 50 Influential Rabbis in America, and in 2015, Anisfeld was named one of the 50 most influential Jews in the world by The Jerusalem Post.