The Power and Limits of Words

For the week of October 13th, 2012

Parashat “B’reisheet”
(Genesis 1:1-6:8)

Among the astounding presumptions of the Torah’s cosmology is the power of spoken words.  God says, “Let there be light… (Gen. 1:3)” and light comes into being.  God says, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let the birds fly over the earth… (Gen. 1:20)” and fish and birds come into being.  The Torah takes it as a given that spoken words, at least God’s spoken words, have the power to create (or change) physical realities.  In B’reisheet, God speaks the world into being.

 That this was an important theological claim for our rabbis is seen in a comment of Ben Zoma on Genesis 1:7, “And God made the firmament… .”

This is a verse whose apparent implication caused Ben Zoma to shake the world [of Jewish learning].  ” ‘And God made!’–(is) an unbelievable utterance,” he said.  “Did not the firmament come into being by God’s word–“by the word of the Lord were the heavens made, and all the host of them by the breath of His mouth (Psalms 33:6)?”1

 For Ben Zoma, of course, it was important to emphasize God’s power even while upholding the belief that God doesn’t have a body.  Genesis presents us with God who doesn’t have (and doesn’t need) hands or arms or eyes to make things (or, to make things happen!).2  Setting aside the related question of how a God with no mouth can speak, the creation narrative captures the rabbis’ sense of the awesome, spiritual mystery of a God who is clearly the Source of creation but also transcends it.  Unlike us, God doesn’t make things through physical effort but with ideas and intentions that are translated into spoken words.  God’s words have the power to create.

Of course, at times, our spoken words also have some power to change physical realities.  Leaders “declare” war or peace and people’s lives are sacrificed or saved.  Judges and juries “announce” sentences and people are jailed or set free (or sometimes killed) by the power of those spoken words.  Clergy “pronounce” couples married and a whole set of legal and property rights as well as behavioral expectations are created.  We “promise” to meet people somewhere or do them a favor and, on the basis of our spoken words, they act differently because of an expectation that our words have created.

 Yet, we also know that sometimes, spoken words can be empty or meaningless.  They have no power at all to effect change or create new realities.  A person says, “We should get together sometime” but we know it will never happen.  An unhappy child yells at a parent, “You can’t tell me what to do!”  but, of course, the parent usually can.  A chronic liar promises us, for the one hundredth time, that they’ll act differently this time and we just don’t believe them.  These words have no power to create.

 With human speech, the key to words that have power seems to be a relationship of trust.  In order for spoken words to be effective, the ones to whom the words are spoken must believe in the integrity and authority of the speaker–the speaker can do what he says and he will.  After all, if I don’t believe that you mean what you say or that you have the authority to make such a statement, your words are just sounds.  They can’t create new realities.  The creative power of spoken words depends on the quality of the relationship in which those words are spoken.

All of which brings us back to God and creation.  If one of the ways in which human beings are “created in God’s image” is the potential, creative power of our speech, then perhaps, we can read aspects of our own, human experience back into the Genesis story3.  Perhaps, for God’s creative speech to be effective, God had to have a depth and intimacy of relationship with the universe in which God’s integrity and authority were beyond question.  Maybe, the universe had to be deeply connected with God, had to “feel” God’s power and love and Truth, in order for God’s spoken words to have that much ability to create and form a new world.

And perhaps the same is true of God’s creative words to us–words that tell us to protect the vulnerable in our society, to regard every human being as a potentially holy reflection of God, to balance compassion with justice, to be good caretakers of the earth, and to do our best to sanctify each moment.  The effectiveness of these holy words in reshaping reality depends on the quality of our relationship with God.  They only have the ability to create or change us if allow ourselves to feel God’s integrity, power and love as well as the Truth of those words.  Otherwise, they’re all just empty sounds or indecipherable marks on parchment.


1Quoted in The Book of Legends–Sefer Ha-Aggadah:  Legends from the Talmud and Midrash, eds., Hayim Nahman Bialik and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky (New York:  Schocken Books, 1992), #16, pg. 8 and citing as its sources Genesis Rabbah 4:6 and Yalkut B’reisheet 6.

2For the rabbis (and most of Jewish tradition), the Torah is limited by the ability of human language and imagery to describe what is, ultimately, beyond words.  So, when the Torah speaks of God “seeing” or “speaking” or of a God who frees slaves “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm,” these are only inadequate, human metaphors for a reality that is, ultimately, beyond the power of our words to name.

3Clearly, this idea won’t work for fundamentalist readers of the Bible.  To suggest that the universe (or we) have a choice in the face of God’s spoken command, that the authority of God’s command depends on the quality of our relationships with God, can be heard as denying God’s absolute power.  But isn’t it also possible that the same God who is understood as the source of humanity’s free will chooses to make the power of these commandments contingent on the evolving quality of our relationship with God?