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Devarim and the Weight of Words

Sometimes language offers hints of meaning. Other times it creates challenges to progress.

The Hebrew language provides many examples. Let us examine two. The Hebrew word for woman: isha is the same exact word for wife. There are different words for a young woman but not an adult woman. The language suggests that once a woman reaches adulthood her fulfillment can only be found in marriage to a man. The word for husband, by the way, is the same as that for owner: baal.

Such are the limitations of an ancient language as it confronts modernity. Hebrew is unable to recognize that a woman can find fulfillment not only in marriage but also as a rabbi (Go Susie!), prime minister (three cheers for Golda!), or even president. A woman can find meaning and fulfillment in a myriad of different ways. Her choices should be as endless as those for a man. She, like a man, should only be limited by intelligence, talents and devotion. (Go Shira and Ari!)

She does not serve a husband. Instead, like men and all human beings, she has the potential to serve the world. She can better the world by not only bringing forth life and forming a loving and holy partnership with another, but by working to improve our broken world. That is the obligation of every human being—both men and women.

On the other hand, there are times when language reminds us of ancient teachings that still resonate with modern meaning.

In Hebrew the word for word: devar is the same as that for thing. A word has weight. It is not ephemeral. It can heal. A word can also harm. A word is a thing. It is as if a word is an object that can be held in our hands. A word is not cheap. This is one of Judaism’s most profound lessons and something that our holy language reminds us of again and again.

In addition the word is born in the desert wilderness: midbar. This word shares the same root as devar. It is there that God revealed the word: devarim. It is there that we were taught about the weight of our words. It is also there that we gained a hint of the power of speech because it is there that God’s word thundered from Mount Sinai.

We must therefore measure the weight of our words. Otherwise we might find ourselves alone, and without the community that nurtures us. We might find ourselves adrift in a desert wilderness.

“These are the words that Moses addressed to all of Israel on the other side of the Jordan….” (Deuteronomy 1)

It is the word that can still bring healing to our broken world.