By Rabbinic Intern Jennifer Stevens.
Good evening. I am honored to be celebrating the High Holidays with you this year. Rabbi Sparr asked me to share a few words with you this evening, and so I would like to begin with a short story.
In the beginning, before there was any order to the universe, there was only God, some angels, and a swirling mass of various matter all smushed together. The angels asked God, “Why don’t you clean up this mess?” God began to untangle and organize the swirling mass so that each type of matter had its own place and relationship with other kinds of matter. After God made distinctions between day and night and between sky and sea, the angels saw that the world was tidier and asked God, “Are you finished?” God told them no and kept putting things in order. You probably know what happened next—God gave all kinds of plants and animals places in the new world, and God arranged the different lights of the sky. By the sixth day of God’s work, God was beginning to feel a bit tired, and then God made human beings. God told the humans, “Please finish what I started,” but the humans pushed back, saying that the work was too much for them. God offered to be a partner with the humans in continuing to create the world, and the humans accepted this offer. The angels came back to God and asked, “NOW is the world complete?” God responded to the angels, “I do not know. You will need to ask my partners.”
We—you and I—are partners in the ongoing acts of Creation. It’s largely in our hands to determine how this world will be made and sustained. No pressure, right? Like the first humans, maybe the idea that we have some responsibility in Creation feels overwhelming. After all, we are only human—how are we supposed to create the world, or even some small part of the world?
The truth is—you and I are creating the world every day, in the same way that God created the world as described in the Creation story of the Torah. Unlike any other creature in this amazing world, we have access to the same “tool” God used to create. This “tool” is so enmeshed in our everyday lives that we often don’t even realize what it can do. We might not consider this “tool” as something particularly special; in fact, we might not think of it as a “tool” at all. Yet this “tool” has the power to create and destroy worlds.
Words. The “tool” we use is our words. We create our world with words. Words are more than a means of communicating information and describing our experiences. Susannah Heschel, the daughter of the great Jewish theologian and philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that her father often said “Words are themselves sacred, God’s tool for creating the universe, and our tools for bringing holiness—or evil—into the world… He also said that words create worlds… They must be used very carefully. Some words, once having been uttered, gain eternity and can never be withdrawn.”
We speak our world into being. You may be wondering “How on earth do I create anything with my words?” and perhaps you think this idea of words as a creative tool is absurd. Yet we are made in image of God. When God made us in God’s image, God gave us the powerful gift of speech that has the capacity to create. We will hear tomorrow morning in the Torah reading “Vayomer Elohim y’hi or; vay’hi or—God spoke, “Let there be light, and there was light.” All it took for God to create the first light was to speak. Just as God’s words create the universe, so too do our words have a tremendous creative power.
In case you are skeptical about words really having the power to create, consider this question. How was our country created? Maybe you think our country became a country when we went to war with Great Britain or when colonists threw tea into the harbor. However, our country became a country through the power of words. First, the founding fathers used words to destroy the connection between the colonies and Great Britain, and I quote from the Declaration of Independence—“…these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved.” After the War of Independence, the founding fathers wrote the following words to open the Constitution, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” The country of the United States of America did not exist until the Constitution was written and accepted. Words established this country; words made something new. Words organized matter—in this case people and land—in a new way. Just like God in the story separates light from dark, land from sea, the founding documents of our country separated us from Great Britain and made a new entity.
Stanley Lieber said, “With great power, there must also come great responsibility.” Knowing the power that words have, how can we be more responsible with our words? How can we use our words for good and avoid using our words for hurtful destructive purposes?
A few moments ago, we took time to pray privately. We opened that time with the words “Adonai s’fatai tiftach ufi yagid t’hilatecha”—God, open my lips that my mouth may declare Your praise—and the traditional text ended on page 68 with the words “Elohai n’tzor l’shoni mei-ra us’fatai midabeir mirma”—My God, keep my tongue from doing harm and my lips from speaking lies and deceit. These two phrases act as bookends for the Amidah, a section of our liturgy which is filled with words. The first phrase, about opening our lips, may seem unusual. Do we really need help opening our lips? The request is not about our ability to open our lips but is about what comes out of our mouth once we open it. We are asking for help to choose words of praise, specifically praise directed to God. The opening words ask for help with building a connection with the Divine Presence. In contrast, the closing words focus our attention on how we use our words in everyday life to create our world.
“Elohai n’tzor l’shoni mei-ra us’fatai midabeir mirma”—My God, keep my tongue from doing harm and my lips from speaking lies and deceit. The closing words ask for help with not speaking evil into the world. We want to take our ability to speak words of holiness, as we did in the Amidah, into our everyday life. These closing words reflect our concern about the relationships we have with other people. After all, we do not create plants or animals with our words. Rather, we build social worlds with our words much like the country’s founding fathers created a country with their words. Our words can create all kinds of organizations such as businesses or clubs. Our words create communities through the relationships we build with our coworkers, our friends, and our families. Our words create the foundation of our relationships.
The act of Creation is hard work, both for God and for us. In my opening story, God made people to be partners in creating the world. The humans in that story find the idea of creating the world far too overwhelming to do it on their own. Creating and maintaining caring relationships with those around us is hard work too. We need help in our creative work. As we leave the intimacy of the Amidah, we ask for help from our Divine Partner in doing our part to continue the work of Creation.
At Rosh HaShanah, we celebrate the Creation of the world, reflect on the past year, and think about our hopes for the new year. We ask ourselves how our words have shaped Creation this year. How have our words created or strengthened the relationships which are the fabric of our world? How can the words we choose and how we say them repair any cracks in the foundation of our social worlds so that we create a world of support and blessings?
As we enter this New Year and celebrate the Creation of the world, let us remember the role our words have in the ongoing work of Creation. May we use our words carefully, recognizing them as the sacred tool that they are, so that we may bring holiness into our world.
Shanah tovah um’tukah!
© 2019 Jennifer Stevens. May not be reproduced or distributed without written permission.