WORDS HAVE POWER
“Thus Rachel died. She was buried on the road to Ephrath—now Bethlehem.” (Genesis 35:19)
Last week I wrote about how, in the book of Genesis, we often see that actions have consequences. What goes around, comes around. What we put out into the universe can come back to bless us or to bite us. We see this in this week’s portion in a very painful way.
Last week Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel stole her father’s idols or gods. Her father Laban came looking for them and Rachel hid them in a camel cushion. She claimed that she was unable to stand up because she was suffering the way of women. It is unclear why Rachel stole these gods; some claim it was her way of proving her inheritance. But Jacob became furious at his father-in-law, and uses words that he will later regret, “Whoever has taken the gods will not remain alive” (See Genesis 31:32).
Jacob had no way of knowing that with his words, he was condemning his beloved wife to death. In this week’s portion, Rachel becomes pregnant for the second time. She struggles in childbirth, naming her newborn son Ben Oni “son of my struggle” before her soul leaves her body. Jacob renames the son Benjamin. Jacob buries his beloved wife Rachel near Bethlehem, the only of our fathers and mothers who was not buried in the family tomb at the Cave of Machpelah. There, according to the prophet Jeremiah, Rachel weeps for the children of Israel being sent into exile. (See Jeremiah 31:15, part of the haftarah for the 2nd Day Rosh Hashana.)
This tragic story teaches the power of words spoken in haste, without considering the consequences of those words. One of the most important ideas taught in the Bible is the power of words. At the beginning of Genesis God creates a world by speaking words, “Let there be light.” We begin our daily preliminary prayers with the phrases, Baruch sh’Amar v’Hiya HaOlam, “Blessed is the One Who spoke and the world came into being.” Later the book of Proverbs would teach, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21).
Children love to say, “sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me.” But as these children grow up, they quickly learn that words can hurt.. And as Rabbi Joseph Telushkin has written, words can also heal. (See his 1996 book Words that Hurt, Words that Heal.) Frequently someone approaches me and reminds me of something I said years before that was a positive influence in their life. Often I do not remember those words. But it is comforting to know that my words made a difference in someone’s life.
I often write about what separates humans from the rest of the animal world. Animals live in a world of nature, whereas humans live in a world of culture. It is language that allows us to create that world of culture. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951), probably the most brilliant philosopher of the twentieth century, built an entire philosophy on what he called “shared language.” Language takes on meaning by the way we humans use it within the context of a community. It is through language that we build a community, and ultimately a culture that we can pass down to our children.
In the Bible, God punishes humanity for the hubris of building the Tower of Babel. The purpose of the tower was to challenge God. The punishment was confusing human speech, so humans could not communicate with one another. Something very deep is lost when we humans lose our power of speech.
Words have power. Words can create worlds and words can destroy worlds. Jacob learns that the hard way with hasty words. His words cause the death of his wife. Let me quote the ancient Chinese spiritual leader Lao Tzu, “Watch your thoughts for they become words, watch your words for they become actions, watch your actions for they become habits, watch your habits for they become your character, watch your character for it becomes your destiny.”