Parashat Bereshit: the creative power of words

2016-10-17-15-10-09Words 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 the wedding contract. 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 a „performative utterance“ – through the uttering of these words, a new legally-binding relationship is created.

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 ridiculous. 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 parents of little children witness constantly the way words create new worlds of experience, learning words for different colours (for example) let children see the world, literally, in a different light. Discovering words to describe their feelings gives emotions greater depth and meaning. 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.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Adrian M Schell (Source: Rabbi Evan Moffic)

Podcast of Rabbi Schell’s weekly Sermons Tuesdays on Radio Today (10h30) or:  http://goo.gl/LsHQrY.

Torah Reading for Shabbat Bereishit

Genesis 1:1-6:8  (Gen 1:1 – 2:3) – Plaut p. 19; Hertz p. 2

Haftarah: Isaiah 42:5-43:10

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