“Actions speak louder than words.” “A picture is worth a thousand words.” “Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me.”
There’s no denying that language is an essential part of what makes us all human. Granted animals have language to a certain degree (dolphins in particular), but obviously nowhere near the magnitude we do. Libraries, societies, Japanese instruction manuals, the whole internet. So we’re all in agreement that words do have a hand in shaping the world. But then Judaism comes along and says our words affect the world in ways none of us could possibly imagine. And I’ll show you two examples in this weeks parsha.
Parsha Vayeitzei: A Quick Glance
Continuing from last week’s parsha Toldos, Yaakov (aka Jacob) is fleeing from his brother Esav after having stolen his blessing. He makes a stop for the night and has a dream. He sees angels climbing up and down a ladder that extends from heaven and then God blesses him and promises him the land he rests upon.
He proceeds on his journey to Charan where he meets his uncle Levan and his family. Yaakov instantly falls in love with Levan’s daughter Rochel and pledges to work for 7 years for Levan in exchange for Rochel’s hand in marriage. The wedding day comes, but Levan switches the bride out for his older daughter Leah. Yaakov confront Levan but ultimately Yaakov agrees to work for another 7 years to have Rochel as a wife too.
Yaakov marries their handmaids, Bilhah and Zilpah, as well, has a bunch of children, but Rochel has trouble conceiving. Yaakov works for a few more years for Levan to get some sheep but then God tells him to go back and confront his brother. Yaakov decides to peace out in the middle of the night without telling Levan and Rochel steals some of her father’s idols (for his benefit) during the escape.
Back to Words
I’m going to go a little more esoteric than I usually do to explain this concept. Please forgive me. We have three ways of interacting with the world. Thought, Speech, Action. Most people would think that action is the only true interaction that affects the world. But Judaism says they all do, both on a physical and a spiritual level.
It is common practice in Judaism that when someone says something bad they add “God Forbid” or its Hebrew equivalent “chas v’shalom.” Our tradition teaches that the statements we make do affect the world. In this parsha, Levan catches up to Yaakov. He accuses Yaakov of having stolen his idols. Yaakov responds…
The one with whom you find your gods shall not live. In the presence of our brothers, recognize for yourself what is with me, and take [it] for yourself.” For Jacob did not know that Rachel had stolen them. Bereishis 31:32
It is because of Yaakov’s curse “The one… shall not live.” That Rochel dies prematurely in the following pasha. Granted no one is probably going to die because of any of our utterances, but for a person as exalted as Yaakov, his spiritual connection came with real consequences. Regardless, we still have an affect (as I’ve made previous mention of concerning Lashon Hara) and should be very careful about what we words put out into the world.
And the super deep stuff.
The deeply Kabbalistic book The Nefesh Ha-Chayyim (The Soul of Life) references an argument in the Talmud. Which one is greater, a man or an angel? Now understand that in Judaism, angels aren’t the winged trumpet playing human looking beings we’ve been sold. They are spiritual entities that don’t have a physical form per-se. If anything, they’d have the power and destructive capabilities of, say, the Balrog from Lord of the Rings. Actually more so. So in a 1 on 1 battle, human vs angel, it’s not going to go 2 rounds. However, the Nefesh Ha-Chayyim illustrates man’s superiority to angels in one particular way.
In one situation man has a great advantage over the angels, and that is in elevating and connecting the worlds and the powers and lights to one another, this is completely beyond the power of an angel. Chapter 10.
In Judaism, there isn’t just heaven and earth, but earth and hundreds of spiritual planes, each one ascending closer to God. Angels reside in each spiritual plane and, on their own, cannot go up and down. The Nefesh Ha-Chayyim is saying that a human has the ability to affect those spiritual realms. How? With words.
In the Jewish prayer service there is a section known as Kedusha. Remember Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh! And you stand on your tip toes? That’s Kedusha. When we say the words of this santification,we are quoting the angels. “For the context of saying Keshusha involves the elevation of the worlds and their interconnection, each world with the world above it, to increase its holiness and the brilliance of it’s light.” (Chapter 11).
So what does all this have to do with the parsha? The Nefesh Ha-Chayyim says that the ladder from Yaakov’s dream is this connection of worlds we make possible in Kedusha. That the ladder itself was an extension of Yaakov, and that the angles were only able to go up and down because of him.
Needless to say our words have a profound effect on the physical world. But that we have very real affect on the things we can’t see is both empowering if not overwhelming. So once again I implore you to be careful with your words and speak blessings instead of curses. If you believe in that sort of thing.