Are words important? This is a question that bedevils us as human beings; particularly, it is largely the ability to speak that distinguishes us from the rest of the animal world. By speech I do not mean the mere ability to communicate information; we know that other animals are capable of this feat, each in its own way. I mean the ability to speak of past and future, the ability to imagine and conceptualize, and the use of words as, to use J. L. Austin's term, performatives. This means that our words serve not merely as description or as evidence; they also serve as instruments of action. Think, for example, of the groom or bride at a wedding who says, "I do." These words are not only testimony to the desire to be married; in part they create the marriage. The same is true of the words "harei at mequedeshet li" (behold you are betrothed to me), recited by the groom to the bride at a Jewish wedding before placing the ring on her finger.
The evidence for the importance of words in Parashat Mattot is mixed, especially as interpreted by the Rabbis. The portion begins by declaring that commitments are created through vows; a moment later, however, it says that a father or a husband may cancel the vows of his daughter or wife. The Rabbis vitiate the power of vows significantly by instituting hatarat nedarim, literally, “the release of vows.” A sage may annul someone’s vow if it can be determined that the person taking the vow would not have vowed at all if he or she had known or understood certain information. (We will return to this troubling law later.) In this instance the power of words is at best equivocal.
Later in the Torah portion, the tribes of Gad and Reuven express their desire to settle on the eastern bank of the Jordan, in the land captured from Sihon, the Amorite, and Og, king of the Bashan, rather than in the land of Canaan. After overcoming his initial anger, Moses grants the land to them conditionally. If they join their brothers in conquering the land of Canaan they will be granted the land they seek. However, if they fail to do so, they will forfeit the land to the east of the Jordan.
The rabbis utilize this narrative as the template for formulating the laws of conditions. For example, one of the requirements for formulating a valid condition according to Jewish law is that it be tenai kaful, a “doubled condition”; this means that it must be stated in both the positive and the negative. Thus, for example, if I say, “If it does not rain tomorrow then I will not donate $100 to charity, but if it does rain tomorrow, then I will donate $100 to charity,” then if it rains the next day, I am obligated to donate the $100. However, if I say merely, “If it rains tomorrow I will donate $100 to charity,” I am obligated to make the donation even if it does not rain.
Now we can explain this technically: Jewish law determines that stating “if” does not qualify my obligation. Only if I state “if and only if”—by formulating my condition in both the positive and the negative—does the condition qualify the statement and its implicit condition. Still, the law is troubling. The intent of the person who made the vow is clear; he only intended it to have force if the condition was fulfilled. Why then is he obligated nonetheless? The answer lies in the power of words. This person’s words, as currently formulated, create an obligation whether he intended it or not. Only a properly formulated condition can prevent that obligation from taking effect. Because this person failed to state such a condition, his words have obligated him. Here we find words having a power of their own, independent of the intentions of the person who uttered them.
We are now in the midst of the three weeks preceding the Ninth Day of Av, the day on which, tradition tells us, the First and Second Temples were destroyed. In traditional liturgy the trauma of the destruction of the Temples permeates every page of the prayer book. For many of us, whose feelings about the sacrificial cult are at best ambiguous, it is not clear that we have lost much, if anything. It is the Musaf service as it is formulated in the Reconstructionist siddur that helps us gain perspective on this loss. It may well be, say the authors of this siddur, that we find the sacrificial system foreign and even repulsive. We must not forget, however, that when our ancestors brought sacrifices they brought the sheep, cattle, wine, oil, and flour that they had so laboriously raised and produced over the course of the year and offered them as gifts to God. To use the contemporary vernacular, they put their money where their mouths were. We, the worshippers in modern synagogues, offer God only words. Of what value are these when compared to the actions of our ancestors? Recalling the sacrifices—a word that is meant here in the broadest sense—brought by them should spur us to turn our words into actions once we leave the synagogue.
And yet—despite the apparent poverty of our words—we pray nonetheless. Why? Let us turn to the opening moments of Yom Kippur. We begin with Kol Nidre, an Aramaic formula for the annulment of vows made during the past year. Why was this, of all things, chosen to initiate our Yom Kippur prayers? Indeed, for centuries many rabbis tried, unsuccessfully, to remove Kol Nidre from the liturgy. Why is it there nonetheless?
I would like to suggest a phenomenological explanation. At no time is the absence of the Temple felt more strongly than on Yom Kippur. On this day the sins of the people were mystically—some would say magically—forgiven through the rite of the scapegoat. A red thread would turn white as a sign that the people were forgiven. How can we possibly hope to obtain that kind of atonement without the Temple rite?
The Yom Kippur liturgy responds to this challenge in a number of ways. First, to an extent unknown elsewhere in the liturgy, we re-create the Temple service itself. For a brief time the prayer leader becomes the high priest, and we the people of Israel gathered in the Temple courtyard. For the only time during the year we prostrate ourselves before God as our ancestors did in the Temple. Second, we recite the martyrology, reminding God that, unfortunately, sacrifice continues after the Temple’s destruction in the form of martyrdom. Third, we emphasize the thirteen merciful attributes of God. According to rabbinic tradition, God taught these attributes to Moses by taking on the role of a prayer leader and reciting these attributes. Moreover, God promised Moses that if, in times of adversity, the people recited these attributes before God, God would be “reminded” of God’s merciful nature and forgive the people.
And, finally, Kol Nidre. In the end, whether it is recollecting the Temple service, reciting the martyrology, or declaring the thirteen attributes of God’s merciful nature, we are still in the realm of words and words only. Is this nothing more than a pale reflection of the world of action and consequence? Hence, Kol Nidre. Before we recite the first word of prayer we are called to remember that words have substance. Kol Nidre reminds us that words bind, and words release bonds. The words that we are about to pray can inspire us or they can be insipid and meaningless. The choice is ours.
Are words important? The answer lies with those who use them; the answer lies with us.