The Power of Words

Connections to Care Mobile Hero
Home / News & Events / Newsletter

The Power of Words

Oct 30, 2017

Last week former President George W. Bush warned against the "casual cruelty" in our nation's discourse these days. He was warning against caustic language and damaging words.

Words have been on my mind all month because at this time of year, the Torah focuses upon their power.

Take the opening passages of the Torah itself, in which the world is created via language: "Yehi Or!" "Let there be light!" Yes, in our telling of the creation story, the universe comes into existence by way of verbal utterance. Our "Big Bang" is a big pronouncement. This is not to refute science. It is to teach us that words are so powerful that they can create worlds. We also know that words are powerful enough to destroy.

words have power

Consider how on the playground children will defend themselves against mean spirited language by saying, "Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never harm me." It is a clever response but completely untrue. Few adults remember the physical pain from a scratch or scrape the way that they remember the sting of mean words hurled at them.

The second Torah portion, Noah, tells yet another story about speech. The Tower of Babel is built by people ambitious to reach the heavens. In an effort to explain why the earth is filled with so many different languages, the story goes that God adds languages to humanity to deter people from communicating well enough to grab too much power.

But my favorite Jewish text on the subject of speech is found in our prayer book. After the Amida, an extremely long prayer that is said both to oneself as well as aloud during Jewish prayer services, we come upon the following text:

"My God. Guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking guile. And to those who slander me, let me give no heed. May my soul be humble and forgiving to all. Open my heart, O Eternal, to Your sacred law, that Your statues I may know and all Your truth pursue…May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to You, O Eternal, my Rock and my Redeemer."

In this prayer, known as the "Elohai," we seek to avoid misusing our tongues and mouths to speak bad words about others. Is this just a prayer for avoiding gossip? Or is it more? How do we wish to use our "air time" with people, especially those closest to us? Do we want to waste a lot of time venting about others, speaking negatively to or about people, or do we want to use our "air time" elevating those around us with words of praise, gratitude and encouragement?

I have always believed that the reason that religious prayers offer praise of God and words of thanksgiving and awe is not because God needs to get a compliment. These prayers are designed to have us practice saying beautiful and kind things—for ourselves and each other.

Rabbi Karen Bender
Rabbi Karen Bender
Skirball Director of Spiritual Life
[email protected]
Sign up for the LAJHealth Newsletter, Connections.

Recent Articles

May 8

In Conversation: Mayor Karen Bass and Dale Surowitz

In Conversation: Mayor Karen Bass and Dale Surowitz In Conversation with Mayor Bass and Dale Surowitz Tuesday, June 4th, 8:15AM Valley Beth Shalom - 15739 Ventura Blvd. Reservations required | $55 per person REGISTER HERE
Read More
Apr 30

Passover 2024 a Time of Thoughtful Celebration at Los Angeles Jewish Health

During Passover this year, we were mindful of the instability around the world, vulnerability in Israel and unrest across our nation’s university campuses. Perhaps pulling at us the most is the status of hostages taken so many months ago. It could have been tempting to alter Passover Seder plans this year. Instead, as the Jewish People have done for millennia, including those who call Los Angeles Jewish Health home, we recognized that the best way to honor the hostages and everyone suffering for their beliefs, was to conduct Seder in part as a tribute to those who continue to strive for freedom from oppression. As we started Seder remembering our brothers and sisters in Israel, this was another opportunity to actively demonstrate our beliefs. These sacred traditions provide us with an anchor to hold onto and give us stability during these tumultuous times. As we share just some of the many images of Passover at LAJH this year, imagine the warm and wonderful music and prayer that wrapped the seniors like a blanket of safety, stability and joy thanks to our wonderful rabbinical leaders, Chief Mission Officer, Rabbi Karen Bender and Rabbi Ronald Goldberg. CLICK HERE FOR PASSOVER PHOTOS
Read More
Apr 30

Rabbi Karen Bender Reflects on Mission to Israel

Rabbi Karen Bender, Chief Mission Officer of Los Angeles Jewish Health, recently returned from a mission to Israel. She was there to express solidarity with our Israeli brothers and sisters, demonstrate to them that they are not alone but rather that our hearts beat as one, bear witness to the massacres, lift up soldiers and family members of hostages, and volunteer by way of farming. Rabbi Bender describes that being there was in some ways like a shiva visit and in other ways like bikkur cholim, visiting the sick. In the Talmud the rabbis state that when you visit someone who is ill, you remove 1/60 of their suffering. Rabbi Bender hopes and prays she took away some of the Israelis' suffering by piercing their feelings of isolation, despair and grief. On the flight home she wrote the following poem. Her reference to the strand of turquoise alludes to an ancient Jewish practice of adding a blueish strand to the tzitzit fringes of the prayer shawl. In those days, one would know that the sun had risen enough to say the morning Shma prayer if there was enough natural light to see the difference between the blue and white strand and the blue and white in the sky. The Diameter of the Massacres*by Karen Bender - April 2024 The diameter of the massacreswas the length of Israeland the depth of the universe.It stretched to every continent,college campuses and social mediaIt spread information and disinformationTwisting and distorting moralityAnd redefining madnessIt wreaked havoc and wrecked livesIn Israel and GazaIn kitchens and living roomsIn bedrooms and porchesIn souls and hearts. The diameter of the visitwas the length of Israelthe distance to Californiaand everyone and everywherewe will speak of it.The mission stretchedour compassion and mindsand challenged our faithin human nature.It struck us with awein every cell of our beingas we saw the resiliency of our peopleand as we strove together to answerthe unspoken question:Where shall we place all the pain?We were messengers and witnesses,representatives with wishes to helpand we did and we will. The diameter of the hugsis the length of an Israeli flagand the width of a tallit large enoughto enwrap every Israeli who hurts right nowand therefore every Israeliwith the comfort of our loveand with a strand of techelet turquoisein the tzitzit to remind us all thatthe morning will come andwe will say the Shma someday with one voice. *A reprise of Yehudah Amichai’s poem, “The Diameter of the Bomb” Rabbi Karen Bender placing letters from residents in the Western Wall Letters from residents put in the Western Wall Sample letter given to Israeli soldiers
Read More