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Parshat Chayei Sara: Words – Scarce and Sacred

Excerpted from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s “Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages – Genesis” co-published by OU Press, Maggid Publishers, and YU Press; edited by Stuart W. Halpern

Derashot Ledorot front cover

What is the value of a word? This is a most appropriate question on the first Sabbath after our national elections took place. Elections to the presidency are a wondrous thing to behold and a glory and tribute to a free people. Yet when the elections were done our countrymen across the land heaved a blessed sigh of relief, for many of us believed that the campaigns for the election did not do much to enhance the glory. Many of us suspected that they were largely an exercise in futility. The real issues, such as they were, could have been discussed much more quickly and conclusively. Most of the words that followed were not meant for clarification as much as for tools in the projection of “images.” There has been talk recently of the possible devaluation of the dollar. Much more thought should have been given to a more serious danger: the devaluation of the word. I believe the nation could have survived the election of either candidate. But we may properly doubt whether the nation could have survived another month of the endless, repetitive, meaningless torrents of words without seriously compromising its sanity.

What then is the Jewish attitude to words? First let us understand that Israel’s greatness can benefit the world only through words. We have never been a numerous people. We have never, except in the most restricted sense, been militarily significant. We have usually been diplomatically weak. Therefore, our message to the world has been transmitted only through the power of the word. Ever since our father Isaac said, “The voice is the voice of Jacob and the hands are the hands of Esau” (Genesis 27:22), our tradition has maintained that “Yaakov koĥo bafeh” – that the strength and the might of Israel lies in its mouth, in its words. The message of Torah is referred to as “the words of the covenant” (Exodus 34:28). What the Western world calls the Ten Commandments our tradition refers to as “aseret hadibrot” – the “ten words.” And when Jews speak of a spiritual gem, they say in Hebrew, a “devar Torah,” “a word of Torah,” or, in Yiddish, “a gut vort” – “a good word.” The word is the medium of spiritual enlightenment, the medium for Israel’s message.

But words, in our conception, have an even more universal function. Words are the mortar that binds man with his fellow-men. Without the extensive use of words, human beings would never group themselves in a society. Without words there can be no communication, no study or schools, no society or social life, no civilization or business or commerce. Neither can there be any family life. When husband and wife are “not on speaking terms,” that is a real danger sign for domestic health.

Onkelos, the great Aramaic translator of the Bible, had that in mind when he offered an unusual translation of a familiar verse. When the Bible relates that God breathed the breath of life into Adam, it says, “Vayehi ha’adam lenefesh ĥaya,” which we usually translate as, “And the man became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7). Onkelos, however, translates it, “And it (the breath of God) became in man a speaking spirit.” The living soul of man is his speaking spirit. The uniqueness of man, his intellect, would be muted and silent were it not for his ability to use words and thus articulate his rational ideas and the feelings of his heart. A word has a life and biography and character and soul of its own. And the word can give life to or take life from the human being. A word can restore and a word can kill. One word can give a man the reputation for wisdom, one word can mark him in the eyes of his peers as a fool. The speaking spirit has a profound effect upon the living soul.

Because of this, Judaism regards words as more than mere verbal units, as more than just another form of communication. In Judaism words are – or should be – holy! When the Torah commands a man that he not break his word, it says, “Lo yaĥel devaro” (Numbers 30:3). Our rabbis noted (Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim 2:1) that yaĥel is an unusual word and so they explained it as “Lo ya’aseh devarav ĥullin” – he shall not profane his word, not desecrate it. Only that which is holy can be made unholy. Only that which is sacred can be desecrated. Man’s words therefore must be holy.

If our word is to be holy, we must keep it, honor it, and revere it. Indeed, the sanctity of a man’s word is a measure of the confidence he deserves, whether in business or within the family. If he keeps his word holy, people will confide in him and trust him. If he desecrates his word, if he makes it ĥullin, then he does not deserve the confidence of his wife, his partners, and his fellow-men. Many, many years after Ĥazal, Oliver Wendell Holmes was to put it this way: “Life and language are alike sacred…homicide and verbicide are alike forbidden.”

It follows therefrom that we must be careful and discriminating, not casual, in whatever we say. When the Israelites conquered the pagan Midianites and destroyed them, the Torah bade the Israelites not to use the Midianites’ vessels until they had been purified and cleansed, so that even the atmosphere or memory of paganism and idolatry would be banished from Israel’s midst. The Torah puts it this way: “Kol davar – any vessel – that is normally used over an open flame must be purified by passing it through fire” (Numbers 31:23). Our rabbis of the Talmud (Shabbat 58b) asked this interesting question: What of a metal megaphone, an instrument devised for magnifying the voice? Can that contract impurities, and if so how can it be purified? Yes, answer our rabbis, it can become impure, and must also be purified by passing through fire. They played cleverly on the phrase “kol davar.” Not only, they said, “kol davar,” but “kol dibbur” – not only every “object,” but every “word” must be passed through fire. Therefore, a megaphone, used to magnify words, is included in the laws of the impurities of Midianite vessels.

Our rabbis meant, I believe, to refer more than just to a megaphone. They meant “kol dibbur” – every word spoken by human lips must be passed through the fire of the soul before it is spoken to the world at large. Every word must be passed through the flame of integrity, of sincerity, of consideration for others, and for the effect that the word may have on them. A word untempered in the furnace of integrity and wisdom is like a table unplaned and unfiled: its splinters and rough edges can injure far more than the table can serve. A word not passed through the fire of consciousness is the master and not the servant of him who speaks it.

Furthermore, we must be not only discriminating in our words, but sparse as well. Our words must be few and scarce. In all of Judaism, the principle of kedusha is protected from the danger of over-familiarity. When man has too much free access to an object or a place, he gradually loses his respect and awe for it. That is why the Torah reader uses a silver pointer. It is not used for decorative purposes. It is employed because of the halakha that “Sacred texts make the hands impure” (Yadayim 3:2) – that we are forbidden to touch the inner part of the Torah scroll. The reason for this is a profound insight of the Torah into human nature: if we are permitted to touch it freely and often, we will lose our reverence for it. The less we are permitted to contact it, the greater our respect for it. Similarly, the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem was preserved in its sanctity by our tradition when it forbade any man other than the high priest to enter its sacred precincts; and even he might not do so except for one time during the year – on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

And so it is with words. The more we use them, the less they mean. When our rabbis investigated the first portion of Genesis, they discovered that the world was created by God “with ten ‘words’” (Avot 5:1). Only ten words to create an entire universe! And yet our rabbis were not satisfied. And so they asked, “Could not the world have been created with only one word?” Why waste nine precious words? Indeed, for with regard to words, quantity is in inverse relationship to quality. If there are so many words that you cannot count them, then no individual word counts for very much.

In our sidra we read, “And Abraham came to mourn for Sara and livkota, to weep for her (Genesis 23:2). If you read the portion carefully, you will notice something strange about the word livkota. The letter kaf is smaller than normal. It is a kaf ketana, a miniature kaf. Why is that?

The commentator known as the Ba’al haTurim explains that Abraham did not weep or speak too much. Of course Abraham said something. There had to be some weeping and mourning and eulogizing. He had to give some articulate expression to the grief that welled up in his breast. For a man who cannot speak out his grief is like a man who cannot sweat – the poison remains within. It can be psychologically dangerous not to mourn. But it must not be overdone. Abraham realized that too many words are an escape from the confrontation with reality. He realized that by using too many words he would dissipate the real feelings he contained within himself. He wanted something to remain, something deliciously private, painfully mysterious, some residue of memory and love and affection for his beloved Sara that he did not want to share with the rest of the world. And so the kaf ketana – indicating that he knew how to limit the outpouring of his words.

Oh how we moderns need this lesson of making our words sacred by making them scarce! How we need that lesson of the kaf ketana. How we must learn to pass our words through the flame of wisdom. Modern life seems centered so much about words. We are dominated by a communications industry. We veer constantly between meetings and discussions, symposia and forums, lectures and sermons, public relations and propaganda. We are hounded continually by radio and television, telephone and telegraph. We are the “talkingest” civilization in all of history. How desperately we need that kaf ketana!

It’s about time that all of us, and especially Jewish agencies, learned that we ought not to be dominated by the public relations machines. It’s about time that we learned to respect the kaf ketana. Moses himself was a stammerer and a stutterer, and so he spoke few words – but whatever he did speak was engraved in letters of fire upon the consciousness of the people. David told us, “Commune with your hearts upon your beds and be silent” (Psalms 4:5). Shammai reminded us, “Speak little, but do much” (Avot 1:15). Other rabbis told us that “The way to wisdom is through silence” (Avot 1:17). The Besht, the great Ba’al Shem Tov, meant the same thing in a comment upon God’s command to Noah, “You shall make a light for the ark.” The Besht pointed out that the Hebrew word for ark – teiva – means not only “ark” but also “word.” Make each word brilliant, alive, shining, sparkling, and illuminating. Use it to enlighten, not to confuse. All of these individuals knew the secret of Abraham, that of the kaf ketana.

Words are important and powerful; therefore they are sacred. Because they are sacred, they must be issued with great, extreme caution. They must be tempered in the fire of one’s character. And because they are holy and purified in fire, they must be few, choice, and scarce.When we will have learned this, we will have learned a great deal indeed. So that ultimately, we will be able to say to God, with David (Psalms 65:2), “Almighty God, our very silence is praise unto You.”


1. November 12, 1960