Thursday, August 25, 2016

So, What's the Story With ... Christianity?

Feel free to download and print the Parashat Eikev sheet and share it with your friends and family.


So, What's the Story With ... Christianity?
Last week we explored prohibitionshow the Torah's  against idolatry fall into two categories: 1) the belief in and worship of foreign gods and 2) the representation or worship of God through an image or any physical concretization. These recur throughout the book of Devarim in regular warnings against the seductions of idolatry, and we find them again in Parashat Eikev:
The graven images of their gods you shall burn with fire: thou shalt not desire the silver or gold that is on them, nor take it unto thee, lest thou be snared therein: for it is an abomination to the Lord thy God. Neither shalt thou bring an abomination into thine house, lest thou be a cursed thing like it: but thou shalt utterly detest it, and thou shalt utterly abhor it; for it is a cursed thing (7:25-26).
The attraction here is not sexual; it is the desire for wealth. It does not begin with the intent to worship idols, merely to take the gold and silver statues because of their value. But doing so ignores the seductive power of such idols: once they are in your house you will be drawn to them, and you will be led astray. Thus the Torah prohibits any connection with these graven images, not just the worship of foreign gods or the making of idols. In halakhic terms, idols or things connected to them are assur bi'hana'ah, items from which a person is forbidden to derive any benefit.
These verses also serve as the basis for the Rabbinic prohibition against renting a house to an idolatrous Gentile. The Torah states that we shall not bring idols into our homes. When we rent a house it still belongs to us, so if the Gentile brings idols in with him, we will have allowed idols to be brought into our house, thereby transgressing this Torah law.
Both of these halakhot led to practical challenges in the Middle Ages. The consensus of the Rishonim was that Christianity fell into the category of avodah zarah. People might be shocked or offended by this categorization today, but as we saw last week, avodah zarah is not limited to the worship of foreign gods. Saying that Christianity is avodah zarah is not saying that they worship a different God or that their belief in the Trinity is a form of polytheism. Rather, it is a statement that their use of statues, icons, and images is a "foreign worship," a worship prohibited by the Torah. The poskim discuss the degree to which this continued to apply to post-Reformation Protestants who rejected the use of such images and icons but maintained their belief in incarnation, God in a physical form. Recently, there have also been those who have pushed for an adoption of Meiri's position that Christianity was never avodah zarah. For Meiri, the belief in a single, transcendent God was enough to put Christianity outside the category of avodah zarah, despite the use of forms and icons in worship.
Be that as it may, for the Rishonim Christianity was avodah zarah, and yet Jews were engaged in buying and selling religious items, not only to lay Christians, but even to the Church itself. Jews also rented houses to Christians even though they would presumably bring in their icons and statues. The halakhists of the time had either to declare that all of this activity was forbidden, or to find a way to justify it within the halakhic system. They chose to do the latter, leading to interesting reformulations of the status of Christianity and Christians.
In the trade of religious objects, the problem was not so much the status of avodah zarah items as assur bi'hana'ah. This status applies only to items that have been worshipped or used in worship. Thus, trade in used religious items would be problematic, but there was no problem in deriving financial benefit from trade in items that had yet to be used. There was, however, another problem. Since the Noahide Laws prohibit idolatry, a Jew could not give or sell a Gentile an object that would be used in worship. This would be a violation of lifnei eever, the prohibition against putting a stumbling block before the blind, that is, assisting someone in committing a sin.
There were two ways to address this problem. The first was to limit the scope oflifnei eever. Thus, some Rishonim stated that if the Gentile could readily purchase the object from someone else, then selling it to him would not be the cause of his "stumbling." Even if this were true, it would be somewhat ironic to apply it in a situation where all the other sellers were Jews. The act of an individual Jew would not be a transgression because other Jews were doing the same thing!
The other approach, beginning to reassess the status of Christianity and Christians, was of broader significance. Tosafot (Avoda Zara 2a) solved this and many similar problems by distinguishing between the two: Christianity is avodah zarah, he asserted, but Christians are not ovdei avodah zarah, worshippers ofavodah zarah! Tosafot separates the two by stating that Christians worship not out of a deep knowledge of their faith, but because they follow practices passed down through the generations and inherited from their parents. Many people will find this assertion disquieting. First, its historical truth is doubtful. If anything, Christians in the Middle Ages were very sincere, and if they were not sincere Christians, it was often because they were backsliding into pagan religions! Beyond that, there is something quite patronizing in saying that the members of another faith are not sincere in their worship, let alone applying this to all practitioners.
Nevertheless, it got the job done. Through this distinction, Tosafot was able to avoid compromising his definition of avodah zarah, leaving Christianity as taboo while opening up a wide range of opportunities-primarily financial-to interact with Christians. Following this, one could sell religious items to Christians because their use was not considered real avodah zarah worship. This still did not explain how people could sell items to the Church, for as a rule, Tosafot did not claim that Christian priests were unknowledgeable or insincere in their faith. Nevertheless, this argument went a long way toward justifying the current practice of the people.
The distinction between Christians and Christianity has had a long echo through later halakha. It became an effective strategy for navigating real-world situations in which halakha made it difficult for Jews to interact with the Christian population. It did not solve all problems, however, and this gets us back to renting houses.
Rema ruled that a Jew could rent his house to a Christian, stating, "nowadays, they do not bring their icons into the house" (YD 151:10). This sounds like another legal fiction, and Shakh called him on it: "This is difficult, because we see that they do bring their icons into the house, and they even keep them there on a permanent basis. And it is difficult to claim that nowadays, since Christians are not worshippers of avodah zarah, their icons are also not considered to be avodah zarah" (YD 151:17). Shakh is saying that we must draw a limit to this distinction. It is one thing to allow a range of interactions with Christians because we do not consider them worshippers of avodah zarah, but how can we find even the icons to which they pray to be unproblematic?
Of course, if one thinks about it logically, the two should go together. If Christians are seen as insincere in their worship, then their praying to an icon should not be an act of avodah zarah, the status that makes it forbidden. Although this logically follows, I believe that Shakh is recognizing the same recoil that we find expressed in the verses from our parasha. It is one thing, he is saying, not to see Christians as taboo. They are people, after all, and the laws that govern our interaction with them come by and large from the Rabbis. But how could we not see the very object that was worshipped as taboo?! Can we really live in a legal fiction and say that the very item the Torah calls cherem, a cursed thing, and tells us to abhor utterly is not problematic?
From a religious perspective, Shakh's reaction makes a great deal of sense. And yet there were poskim who did not hesitate to draw the logical conclusion and argue that, if people are not true worshippers, icons are not true idols. Despite the Torah's mandate to "utterly abhor" anything associated with avodah zarah, ongoing interactions between Jews and Christians provided the catalyst for rethinkinghalakhic categories related to avodah zarah and the attendant prohibitions, a process which continues even today.

Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Seductions of Idolatry

Feel free to download and print the Parashat VaEtchanan sheet and share it with your friends and family.


The Seduction of Idolatry

Much of the book of Devarim is devoted to warning the people against being seduced by idolatry when they enter the land. It is often hard for us to appreciate why idolatry was such a temptation in the past. To better understand the attraction, we must look more closely at the metaphors and images the verses use in the exhortations against it.

This week's parasha contains two very different prohibitions against idolatry. One occurs in the repetition of the Ten Commandments: "Thou shalt have no other gods before me....Do not bow down to them and do not worship them, for I, the Lord thy God, am a jealous God (Devarim 5:7,9). This is a clear prohibition against abandoning faith in the one true God for belief in foreign gods. The Torah tells us not to "have" any other gods, not to believe in them or accept them as gods over us. It also tells us that this applies to action as well as belief; we cannot worship these gods or bow down to them.

The end of the verse provides a powerful metaphor for this form of idolatry. God describes Godself as an E-l kanna, a "jealous God." Elsewhere, the trait of jealousy is associated with a husband who suspects his wife of committing adultery: "If a man's wife strays and breaks faith with him....a fit of jealousy (ruach kinnah) comes over him and he is jealous (vi'keenei) for his wife who has become defiled" (Bamidbar 5:12,14). This jealousy comes to the fore when a bond of fidelity has been broken, when one of the parties gives loyalty, worship, or even a part of him- or herself to another.

Thus, the act of idolatry is often compared to fornication: "And this people will rise up, and go a whoring after the alien gods of the land ... and will forsake me, and break my covenant which I have made with them" (31:16). In this metaphor, God is the husband and the children of Israel are the wife, firstly, because the husband is understood to hold the position of authority, and secondly, because in a polygamous society marriage only demanded fidelity from the wife. Our belief in and worship of God must be to the exclusion of all others. God, on the other hand, is free to have relationships with the other nations of the earth.

Beyond speaking to the aspect of betrayal, this framing also points to one of the seductive aspects of idolatry. Many idolatrous cults incorporated sexual acts in the worship of their gods, hence the kedeishot (cult prostitutes) referred to in the Torah. Moreover, as we saw at the end of Parashat Balak, women would call to people to have sex with them and to participate in the worship of their gods. Sex and idolatry become intertwined; the worshipper "fornicates" with other gods both literally and figuratively. We can now understand why Pinchas was described as kanno et kinnati, "jealous/zealous on my behalf," when he rose to slay Zimri. He embodied God's double jealousy over the people's spiritual and literal fornication and acted appropriately.

This double sense of fornication appears earlier in the Torah, in the book of Shemot:

For thou shalt worship no other god: for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God; Lest thou make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and they go a whoring after their gods, and do sacrifice unto their gods, and one call thee, and thou eat of his sacrifice; And thou take of their daughters unto thy sons, and their daughters go a whoring after their gods, and make thy sons go a whoring after their gods (Shemot 34:14-16).

In these verses, fidelity is transferred not just to a different god, but to a different people; the breaking of the covenant with God finds its counterpart in the making of a covenant with the people of the land. This whoring, jealousy-provoking betrayal of God is reflected and reinforced through the sexual pull of these pagan sons and daughters. It is an abandonment of God for other gods and the sexual freedoms they provide. The Sages put it succinctly: "Israel did not worship foreign gods except to give themselves permission to do sexual transgressions out in the open" (Sanhedrin 63b).

It would be misguided, however, to believe that greater sexual freedom was the only pull that idolatry exerted on the people when they entered the land. There is something in the words "fornication" or "to go whoring" that communicates more than adultery and the breaking of trust. There is a sense of indiscriminate activity, of sleeping with any passerby who will pay the price. The attraction here is for the thrill, the excitement, the novelty of the experience. After many years, people may become bored with worship that is so familiar to them. They see and hear things which sound unusual, unfamiliar, and hence, exciting. Over-familiarity can often erode eroticism and passion. There is also a much greater variety of worship, and something indiscriminate about the worship itself: "You shall utterly destroy all the places, wherein the nations which ye shall possess served their gods, upon the high mountains, and upon the hills, and under every green tree" (12:2). The variety and opportunities afforded by this worship, especially when contrasted to the single-Temple, highly-structured worship in the Torah, can be powerfully seductive.

But there is another type of idolatry as well, one that has nothing to do with adultery, jealousy, or betrayal. It appears earlier in the parasha, when Moshe is describing the events surrounding the giving of the Torah at Har Sinai:

And the Lord spoke unto you out of the midst of the fire: you heard the voice of the words, but saw no similitude; you heard only a voice....Take you therefore good heed unto yourselves; for you saw no manner of similitude on the day that the Lord spoke unto you in Horeb out of the midst of the fire: Lest you act corruptly, and make you a graven image, the similitude of any figure, the likeness of male or female (4:12,15-16).

Moshe is warning the people to not make idols and bow down to them, but this is clearly not the worship of foreign gods. The people are told twice, "you 'saw no similitude' on the day that you received the Torah." The point here is obvious: having experienced this tremendous theophany, seen the thunder and lightning, and heard God's voice, it is very possible that the people will trick themselves into thinking that they actually saw some image of God. Wanting to recapture that experience, they might then make some image to represent what they think they saw. This would not be the worship of a foreign god, but worship of the one true God through an image. The problem is not betrayal, and the key word is not fornication. The problem here is corruption: "Lest you act corruptly." To make an image of God is to corrupt who God is. It is to bring God down, to make God part of this world: concrete, imaginable, easily accessible. The radical theology of the Torah is not simply in there being one God rather than many gods. It is also in God's complete transcendence of the physical world, a God for whom any physical representation is a corruption.

This word, corrupt, sh'ch't,is also the key word used in describing the sin of the golden calf. "Go down quickly, for your people have acted corruptly," "ki sheecheit amekha" (9:12, and Shemot 32:7). To me this is clear evidence that the sin of the golden calf was not the worship of other gods-something that would make no sense in the context of just having seen all of God's miracles-but rather the need to create a concrete way of accessing God in Moshe's absence. This is the other way in which idolatry can be so seductive. It is exceedingly hard to worship an unseen God, to know that any image that we have in our heads is fundamentally false. How much easier it would be if we could direct our worship towards some representation of God, be it an object or a person! The Torah, however, demands from us a purity of belief and a purity of worship.

We live in a world where idolatry is not our chief concern. As one writer put it, the problem today is not too many gods, but too few. But I would go further. The chief problem is not the ability to believe in God. It is maintaining a system of belief that demands we turn away from the seductions and freedoms of the world, that we find a way to deepen our relationship rather than to go looking for new thrills, and that we find the deep satisfaction that comes with loyalty, consistency, and a relationship that is honest and true.


Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, August 11, 2016

He Said, He Said

Feel free to download and print the Parashat Devarim sheet and share it with your friends and family.


There are many differences between the stories that are retold in the book of Devarim and their earlier appearances in the Torah. How are we to explain this? If we read in Bamidbar that sending the spies was God's idea and in Devarim that it was the people's, it would seem that one version has to be wrong. There can be only one historical truth, so which one is it? I am not overly bothered by this question. Reality is often more complex than we are prepared to admit. Maybe it was the people's idea, Moshe agreed, and God gave it the okay; maybe God commanded it just at the time that the people were approaching Moshe and suggesting it; or maybe there was some other conflation of events. What's more, I am willing to live without an answer. I believe that the Torah wanted us to consider the implications of these competing narratives and the religious truths that each has to teach us. I can live without knowing which one, or what combination of the two, accurately describes what happened in history. The question that I find more compelling is this: What is to be learned from the way the stories are retold? Put another way, why did Moshe choose to frame these stories differently in their second appearance? What message was he trying to impart to the generation that was about to enter into the land? Let us examine two of the narratives in this week's parasha.

We already mentioned the first: the story of the spies. In Bamidbar, God commands Moshe to send the spies; here, the people bring the idea to Moshe. The second narrative is the appointing of judges. In Parashat Yitro, we read that this was the title character's idea. Here, we are told that it was Moshe's idea, and the people approved. How are we to understand these re-framings? The answer lies in how we view Moshe's goals for telling the people of these past events.

It is commonly assumed that his goal was to castigate the people, letting them know how much they had sinned and reminding them of the consequences in order to set them on the straight and narrow so that they would obey God in the future. This would explain why the story of the spies is framed as the people's idea. To emphasize God's role would give the people an excuse, allowing them to blame it on God. By bracketing God's role, Moshe was able to underscore that the blame lay fully at the feet of the people. This approach, however, is too narrow. It doesn't fully appreciate Moshe's goals for the speech or explain other differences, such as the Yitro story.

I believe that Moshe's goal was not to castigate the people, but rather, to prepare them for a life of making responsible choices and to teach them to own responsibility for their future. This is a major theme in the book of Devarim: "Behold I have given you today life and good, and death and evil. And you shall choose life" (30:19). They were moving from a life of dependency on God and, frankly, Moshe to one in which they would have to chart their own destiny; build a country, its infrastructures, and its institutions; and set up a society guided by the Torah. They were no longer the generation of slaves; they were free men and women, and they would have to begin owning that freedom.

This framing explains the differences in the two versions of the story of appointing the judges. As a suggestion from Yitro that was adopted by Moshe, this was a top-down decision that the people had no part in. In contrast, it now appears as Moshe's idea; he presents it to the people, and they agree: "And you answered me and said, 'The thing which thou has spoken is good for us to do'" (1:14). Here, Moshe describes a non-authoritarian leadership that consults the people before major decisions, at least those determining who would have power over them. This is leadership that, while not democratic, is at least more collaborative, and it is a populace that is more empowered. Thus, rather than Moshe selecting the judges as described in Shemot, here Moshe tells the people to "pick from each of you" leaders, people who are "known to your tribes." The people select leaders who can act as real representatives of, and good leaders for, their tribes.


The differences go beyond this. Earlier, Moshe saw himself as the only person able to shoulder the responsibility, and he needed Yitro to point out that he was unable to bear the burden alone. Here, Moshe himself says, "How can I handle myself the trouble of you, your burden and your bickering!" (1:12). He recognizes his own limitations as a leader and knows when he needs to reach out to others for help.

The roles and the qualities of the judges are different as well. In Shemot, Yitro told Moshe to choose those who would judge the people, those who would apply the law that Moshe would teach. The necessary personal qualities were that they be "men of valor, who fear God, men of truth who spurn ill-gotten gain" (Shemot 19:21). In other words, they had to be men with the courage to withstand influence and temptation, who would fear no one in truthfully applying the law. In contrast, their role as judges is not highlighted here. Rather, Moshe states that he needed people to help him share the burden of leading the people, of handling their fights and bickering. This certainly entails adjudicating court cases, but it refers more generally to a position of communal responsibility and leadership, what the term "judges" comes to mean in the book of Judges. Thus, Moshe tells the people to select "wise men, and understanding, and known among your tribes, and I will make them rulers over you" (1:13). Fortitude and truth are not key attributes here; wisdom and understanding are. These are qualities needed in good rulers, and as mentioned, the leaders here are also known to the tribes they serve. They can build on these relationships to engage the people with a leadership that is both collaborative and authoritative.

This brings us to the differences in the stories of the spies. By framing the decision to send the spies as the people's choice, Moshe was not trying to blame them. Quite the opposite, his telling here depicts a fully proper request. Notice that the people did not ask the spies to report whether the land was good or not, as Moshe had in Bamidbar (13:19-20). Such a directive could have indicated a questioning of the divine promise or the rightness of their mission. In contrast, the people exhibit exactly correct behavior for a people taking responsibility for their future: "let us send men ahead to reconnoiter the land." They wanted to prepare a plan of attack. In this telling, Moshe agrees to the idea, once more showing himself to be a leader who listens to and works together with his people. And it is not the spies who seduce the people here; the evil report is not even directly mentioned. Rather, it is simply stated that "you did not desire to go up" (1:26). Moshe is saying to the people, "You took (proper) responsibility for the plan to send the spies; you must also take responsibility for your decision not to go into the land. When you wailed that 'our brothers have melted our hearts,' that was an excuse. In the end, it was your choice, and you must own the consequences of your choices."

The retelling of these past events drives home the message that the people must take responsibility for their choices, and that one of these was to choose the leaders that fit their needs, leaders who respect them as an empowered people. Perhaps this is what Moshe means when he says, "God was incensed with me too because of you [and told me that I could not enter the land]" (1:37). Rather than reading this as a form of collective punishment, Moshe might be saying that God held him accountable for the failings because, as the leader of the people, he did not do enough to help them mature into a fully empowered society. He may even be saying, "God was angry with me for your sake," that it was for their benefit that God was angry with Moshe, for God knew that a different type of leader was required. But for the people to merit that new type of leader, they had to be a people who could take and own responsibility. Their mandate now was to become the people ready to enter into the land.

Shabbat Shalom!



Thursday, August 4, 2016

Words that Create Worlds

Feel free to download and print the Parashat Matot-Masei sheet and share it with your friends and family.


Words that Create Worlds

Words have power. They can cut deep, creating lasting scars in one's psyche, or they can comfort, console, encourage, and inspire. Words can also convince and persuade when used in a cogent argument, as when the daughters of Tzelafchad approached Moshe to voice their claim of inheritance over their father's land in last week's parasha. God affirmed the justness and rightness of their words, "Properly have the daughters of Tzelafchad spoken," and the law was changed. In this week's parasha, the tribes of Reuven and Gad approach Moshe and make a reasonable argument as to why they should inherit the land east of the Jordan. Moshe initially resists, but through promises, conditions, and stipulations, they come to an agreement, and the request is granted. This is the power of words to influence someone's thinking, to bring about a meeting of minds, and to affect another's actions.

As great as it is, this is a mundane power, but as evidenced in Parashat Balak, words also contain metaphysical and spiritual power. The subtext of the entire narrative is obvious: had Balak succeeded in cursing Bnei Yisrael, great tragedy would have befallen them. God did us a great kindness by not allowing those words to be spoken, "But the Lord thy God would not hearken unto Balaam; but the Lord thy God turned the curse into a blessing unto thee, because the Lord thy God loved thee" (Devarim 23:6).

But words do more than impart a blessing or a curse; words create our reality. It was with words that God created the world. And as human beings created in the image of God, we have the ability to create spiritual realities through our words, to shape the world in which we live, and to bring sanctity into the world.

This theme opens this week's parasha: "If a man vows a vow unto the Lord, or swears an oath to bind his soul with a bond; he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth" (Bamidbar 30:3). The Torah mentions an oath and a vow. Making an oath is swearing about the past or the future in God's name, calling on God to witness the veracity of your statement, or that you will keep to your word. It is less about creating something new than it is about using God's name falsely. A vow, on the other hand, is understood by the Rabbis to be a way of using one's words to create a new, metaphysical reality. Just as a person can sanctify an animal with his words and make it holy and fit to be brought as a sacrifice, so too can he imbue any object with holy-like status, making its use or any derived benefit forbidden.

It is not obvious if or how vows can also bring holiness into the world. The Talmud makes it clear, however, that many people expressed their religiosity in this way, as a form of personal expression beyond conforming to the laws and rituals by which we are all bound. Imposing fasts (also, according to the Rabbis, a type of vow) and increasing the scope of forbidden foods and pleasures are ways to expand and deepen one's religious reality, at least to the degree that one experiences religiosity as a form of self-denial and separation from the world.

The Rabbis were not always happy with this form of religious expression. At times they critiqued the very notion of self-denial as a religious goal, stating that, in the end, we will be accountable for the ways in which we failed to derive pleasure from the world that God has given us (Yerushalmi Kiddushin, ch. 4). A story is told that Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch was criticized for going to Switzerland on vacation. He was asked, "Why not stay at home and learn more Torah?" Rav Hirsch replied, "After 120 years, I don't want to go up to heaven and have God say to me: 'Shimshon, what about My Alps? Have you seen My Alps?'"

At other times the Rabbis' critique was directed at the way in which this personal expression of religiosity undercut the shared forms of religious expression: "Whoever takes a vow is as if he has built a bamah, a private altar. And whoever fulfils it is as if he has offered a sacrifice on the altar" (Nedarim 22a). Worship at a private altar is acceptable if there is no Temple, but once there is a Temple, such acts represent a breaking away from shared worship and a diminishing of its importance.

Words, then, can create metaphysical realities, but that is not necessarily a good thing.  The goal is to use them to increase and reinforce the kedusha in the world rather than compete with or undercut it.

Consider Shabbat. The sanctity of Shabbat comes from God and hearkens all the way back to the first days of creation: "And God blessed the Sabbath day, and sanctified it." Nevertheless, with our words we can add to and intensify that sanctity. We make kiddush, verbally recognizing and pronouncing its sanctity. This act, coming from us, makes the kedusha of Shabbat more real; it connects us to Shabbat in a personal way. And when we share thoughts on the parasha or sing zemirot, the kedusha of Shabbat is deepened and intensified, giving us a form of individual religious expression and a way to make that kedusha our own. We can even accept Shabbat early, bringing the sanctity of Shabbat into the week with our words. But our words can also do the opposite, creating a reality that competes with the sanctity of Shabbat: "And you shall honor it from not doing your own ways ... or speaking your own mundane words" (Yesha'yahu 58:13). If we speak of weekday matters like business, profession, and money, or even if we speak of trivial matters rather than holy ones, we have-through our words-diminished the sanctity of Shabbat. We have made it that much more like any other day of the week.

In so many ways, our words create the world in which we live. This is certainly true for ritual words like the kiddush of Shabbat, which, as we have seen, brings greater sanctity to the day. We make blessings over a piece of fruit and change it from a human product or something taken for granted into a gift from God. We make a blessing over mitzvot and transform them from rote ritual into a religious act imparting sanctity to the one who performs them ("Blessed are You, God, who has sanctified us with Your mitzvot and commanded us..."). We make blessings over lifecycle events: At a bris we make a kiddush-like brakha over a cup of wine, making this into a sanctified, covenantal act. And we do the same at a wedding, turning the marriage into a kiddushin, a sanctified bond that brings holiness to the entire Jewish people ("Who sanctifies His people Israel through chuppah and kiddushin").

But words need not be ritualized to shape our reality. When we say our daily prayers with sincerity, we bring God into our world. When we say im yirtzeh Hashem, God willing, and we really mean it, we bring God into our world. When we pray on account of someone who is sick or offer up a few brief, personal words to God, words of thanks or supplication, we bring God into our world. And in the home, when we speak to our children of a life of serving God and Klal Yisrael, of learning Torah and of keeping mitzvot, we shape their reality and our own; we create sources of holiness and meaning. But if we speak of a world in which the wealthy are to be envied, in which getting ahead is what matters, then we rob their world and ours of its kedusha. If we are not careful, our vows, our speech acts, can be like the building of private altars, creating a world populated by sources of meaning and value that compete with the sources of true kedusha.

Perhaps Abraham Joshua Heschel said it best in The Insecurity of Freedom:

One of the major symptoms of the general crisis existent in our world today is our lack of sensitivity to words. We use words as tools. We forget that words are a repository of the spirit. The tragedy of our times is that the vessels of the spirit are broken. We cannot approach the spirit unless we repair the vessels. Reverence for words-an awareness of the wonder of words, of the mystery of words-is an essential prerequisite for prayer. By the word of God the world was created.


Words create the world in which we live. It is up to us to decide what that world will look like.




Shabbat Shalom!