"Sticks and stones," the nursery rhyme says, "may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." The intent of this pithy statement is probably to help children solve disputes with words rather than physical violence. Its message does, however, raise serious doubts. Words can and do hurt us. Words can trivialize, words can insult, words can stereotype. Words can, even when we do not intend them to do so, convey dangerous messages. A pertinent Jewish example is the use of the phrase "Old Testament" in reference to the Hebrew Bible. When we use that phrase, we (perhaps unwittingly) support the view that our Torah and other sacred texts are at best incomplete, having been superseded by a "New Testament."
Words can hurt us because they contain enormous power. For the same reason, they can also inspire, uplift, and enlighten us. They can even create something out of nothing. We see this idea illustrated strikingly in the opening chapters of Torah. How does God create the universe? Through words. "God said, 'Let there be light’—and there was light" (Genesis 1:3). This pattern of God speaking and creation coming into being continues. The sky, the waters, the earth literally come into being through God's words.
The notion that words can create a new reality carries over into many aspects of Jewish law and tradition. Consider, for example, a Jewish wedding ceremony. What makes the marriage a legal marriage? It is not the ketubah. It is not the breaking of the glass. According to traditional Jewish law, a relationship becomes a marriage when before at least two witnesses the groom says to the bride the words, Harei at m’kudeshet li b'taba-at zo k'dat Mosheh v'Yisrael, "Behold, you are consecrated to me with this ring, according to the law of Moses and Israel." These words constitute, to use the phrase of British philosopher J. L. Austin, a "performative utterance" (How to Do Things with Words [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962] p. 5). Through the uttering of these words, a new legally-binding relationship is created.
This understanding can help us probe even deeper into the text and provide a potential answer to one of our Torah portion's most ambiguous questions. In Genesis 1:26, we read those famous words, "God now said, 'Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness.' " While these words are sublime, they are ambiguous. What does it mean to be created in the image of God? Many answers have been offered. For Maimonides, it was having the power of reason and intellect. For Saadyah Gaon, it was having dominion over the plants and animals (quoted by Abraham Ibn Ezra in Sefer HaYashar on Genesis 1:26). For R. Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, it was having free will (Meshech Chochmah, commentary on 1:26). Other commentators point to morality and spiritual immortality as signs of the divine image within us.
Perhaps we can derive another answer from a p'shat (“literal”) reading of text itself. Human beings are created in the image of God because, like God, we create through words. While God creates the natural world through words, we create our social world through them, using language to name our surroundings and fellow human beings, to establish relationships, and to articulate the basic concepts that give our lives order. The Targum, the ancient translation of the Hebrew Bible, hints at this interpretation when it translates the words from Genesis 2:7, vay’hi ha-adam l’nefesh chayah, "man became a living being," as "man became a speaking being" (Targum Yonatan 2:7).
Words give us a notion of past, present, and future. Words give us a way to describe and give meaning to our bodies, our surroundings, our sense of self. This concept may seem difficult, even preposterous. Like breathing, language seems to come naturally to us. It seems as if it has always been with us. We usually don't pay attention to its presence, and we forget the time and effort it took to attain it. Yet, as the parent of a two-year-old, I am lucky enough to witness constantly the way words create new worlds of experience. Learning words for different colors, for example, lets my daughter see the world, literally, in a different light. Discovering words to describe her feelings gives those emotions greater depth and meaning. I have come to the conclusion that a child learning a language has the best understanding of the words from the Yotzer prayer, b’chol yom tamid ma-aseh b’reishit, "You [God] create the world anew every day."
When discussing the concepts of words and language, I am referring not only to words spoken with our mouths. Language can be communicated in a variety of ways, and each of them has a creative power. We find a beautiful illustration of this phenomenon in the life of Helen Keller. Keller learned sign language from her tutor Anne Sullivan, and in her book, My Religion, she described the difference between the time before and the time after she learned it. "For nearly six years," she writes, "I had no concept of nature or mind or death or God. I literally thought with my body. . . . Then, suddenly. . . . I awoke to language, to knowledge of love, to the usual concepts of nature, of good and evil! I was actually lifted from nothingness to human life" ([New York: Doubleday, 1927], pp. 20–21).
How might this insight work in our own lives? Understanding the creative power of words can enrich our experience of prayer. Prayer is the language of the heart. When we pray, we create, define, and repair our inner world. Prayer gives light to our inner being.
More broadly, we can understand the words we speak as a means of self-creation. The language we use—and this includes not just spoken and written words, but also sign language, facial expressions, body motions, pictures and music—helps us understand ourselves and lets us create relationships with others. Our words give us the power to describe our past, define our present, and dream of our future. To paraphrase Helen Keller and modify slightly the Book of Proverbs, "Life and death lie in the power of language" (Proverbs 18:21).
At the time of this writing in 2009, Rabbi Evan Moffic was senior rabbi of Congregation Solel in Highland Park, Illinois.