Abracadabra! These words, recited by magicians all over the world, when broken down into smaller words introduce us to the truest mystery-the creation of the world. A’bara K’adabra – I will create as I have spoken. Just as magicians claim to have the power to change the reality that is in front of them with words, so too, when God created the world it was done not with hands, not with tools, but with speech. In Genesis 1:3 the first thing that God does is to speak. This verse reads, “And God said: ‘Let there be light’; And there was light.” What is it about the power of the spoken word that causes it to transform worlds?
In this week’s double parashah, Tazri’a-M’tzora, we find another reference to the power of words. We are introduced to tzara’at, an ancient skin ailment. The priest intricately evaluates the afflicted person’s skin, checking the color and texture of the affected area. Upon consideration the priest decides if the symptoms are consistent with that disease, and if so, the person must be put outside the camp. What could that person have done to be afflicted with this disease? What might they have done that forced them from the community? We see from our sages that the use of the lashon ha-rah (the evil tongue), or gossip, can be a cause for this skin ailment.
Rambam, in his commentary on the Mishnah, Negaim 12:5 states: “Our Sages have said that tzara’at comes as punishment for the evil tongue, for its owner is isolated and can no longer harm people with his loose talk.” In Mesechet Arakhin 15b, Resh Lakish elaborates: “What is the connotation of the phrase, “This is the Torah of the one stricken with tzara’at-(metzora)? This shall be the law of him which spreads evil talk-(motzi shem ra).”
We know from the creation story that the power of words can be used to create. We learn from our parashah that when words are used maliciously they have the power to destroy. The question is, how can we remind ourselves daily about the power of language?
Each day we open and close the central prayer, the Amidah, by evoking the power of words. We begin by saying “Open my mouth, O Lord, and my lips will proclaim your praise.” After the recitation of all of the central parts of the Amidah, we conclude with the words “My God, keep my tongue from evil, my lips from lies.” Why do we close the Amidah on this note? Why don’t we ask for peace, love, and health in the world? Because, just as we hope that with our words (prayers) God will create the world we wish to live in, our words have the power to break down the ideal world we are striving towards. If we are to aid God in creating our ideal world, we need to hold our tongues from destroying it.
The publication and distribution of the JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.