Children beginning to acquire language face some amusing obstacles. Confusing basic words is one of them.
My son, for example, loved to stretch out his arms and tell me about something that was the biggest or the best “… in the whole wide word.” My heart smiled every time.
There was something telling in his mistake.
Jewish tradition is no stranger to the link between words and the world. Words have great power. We recite each morning in the liturgy, “Blessed is the One who spoke and the world came into being” or “Baruch she’amar v’haya ha’olam.” Words are more than signs. They have the ability to create. They are intrinsically holy. As S. Ansky relates in The Dybbuk, “every word that a man speaks with sincerity is the Name of the Lord.”
For children, words describe what is concrete around them (“book,” “banana,” “car”) and communicate their most basic needs (“water,” “pee”).
As adults, our relationship with words grows much more complex. We use words to build relationships (“I love you”) and to break them down (“You’re fired”). We use them to direct people, manage situations, reflect and pray. We also use words to chart our future behavior. We make promises and vows (in Hebrew called neder).
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks comments on the meaning of a neder by saying, “When we bind ourselves by words, we are using language not to describe but to create — to create an orderly future out of the chaos of human instincts and desires.”
No one knows this more than someone who is trying to stop some addictive behavior and makes a vow (“I will eat less sugar, I will stop smoking”), or who wants to create reliable work habits (“I will get that report to you on time”) or build a relationship with others (“I will marry you”). Our promises to ourselves and to others guide our behavior and can shape our future.
Sacks continues: “What is unique to humans is that we use language to bind our own future behavior so that we can form with other human beings bonds of mutuality and trust.” The care with which we choose our words is at the core of building relationships, family lives, communities and a just society. When we speak, our words can be relied upon. When we promise to do something, others know we will follow through.
But even with our best intentions, we fall short in many ways.
Yom Kippur is our time to reflect on the year that has passed and all the ways we wished we could fulfill the promises and nedarim we made.
One of the central aspects of the Yom Kippur liturgy is the confessional prayer, or vidui. In a chant audible only to ourselves, we beat our chest and recite a litany of missteps that begin, “We sinned before you … ” Hardly an exhaustive list, it represents the whole alphabet of sins (it starts with aleph and ends with tav). It is striking how many times that sins related to speech appear.
“We have sinned against you through idle chatter/ the way we talk/ foul speech/ foolish talk/ gossip/ speaking ill of others/ everyday conversation” — and the list goes on.
The sheer number of sins on the list calling us to consider our speech confronts us to recognize that our talk is cheap. Far from holiness, we use our words to fill the silence at best and malign people at worst. Once sensitized to our overall use of speech, we can go a step deeper and consider another transgression mentioned in the confessional prayer: “We have sinned against you through empty promises”(Shvuot Shav).
Time and again, we have said that we will do something and don’t follow through. Slowly, these empty promises erode trust that binds people and communities together.
I have a personal practice every High Holidays season. Instead of sinking into the feeling of “where to begin” with the project of self-improvement presented by the High Holidays, I start small by picking one character flaw and focusing on correcting it.
One year it was my struggle with being late, so being on time was my focus. Another year I felt like my friendships were fading into the background of my recent marriage, so I focused on investing more energy into friendships.
Last year, aware that there were many things I did not complete, my vow was to “keep my word.” It proved to be an amazing experience. I learned to measure my words carefully. I wasn’t the first to volunteer for projects that I knew I couldn’t complete.
And the ones to which I did commit, I was devoted to the end. By becoming more conscious about keeping my word, I worked to make my world a little bit more reliable. I certainly have more work to do in this area.
Maybe my son, in his innocent confusion, was onto something when he mistook “word” for “world.” By keeping our word, we keep our world together.
This Yom Kippur, let us be more conscious of our words, their intrinsic holiness and their powerful potential to create a better world.