Words Create Worlds

Toledot By :  Lauren Eichler Berkun Posted On Nov 9, 2002 / 4 Kislev 5763

This week’s Torah portion gives us a powerful, albeit troubling, reminder of the power of words. Jacob tricks his blind father Isaac into giving him the blessing reserved for the first-born son. Once the deception is unveiled, and Esau stands before Isaac with great expectation, the Torah paints a poignant picture of the devastating consequences of Isaac’s words:

Isaac was seized with a violent trembling. “Who was it then,” he demanded, “that hunted game and brought it to me? Moreover, I ate of it before you came, and I blessed him; now he must remain blessed!” (Gen. 27:33).

But Esau can not accept the irrevocable nature of Isaac’s words:

When Esau heard his father’s words, he burst into wild and bitter sobbing, and said to his father, “Bless me too, Father! … Have you not reserved a blessing for me? … Have you but one blessing, Father? Bless me too, Father!” (Gen. 27:34-38).

Over and over again, a sobbing child begs his father to alter his words. Our hearts are torn for Esau as we read his repeated requests for a blessing. We are faced with a simple question — why can’t Isaac take back his words? In light of Jacob’s trickery and deception, why can’t Isaac revoke his initial blessing and give it to Esau instead?

This story confirms an important theme throughout Jewish tradition: words create worlds. God models this approach to language in the first chapter of Genesis, when God speaks the world into being. Since language effects reality, there is an irretrievable nature to the words which leave our lips. Even if our words were mistaken, “like an error from the mouth of a ruler” (Ecclesiates 10:5), we may not reclaim them. Thus, even after Haman’s evil is plot is revealed, King Ahasuerus is unable to overturn his decree to destroy all of the Jews on the 13th of Adar. As he explains, “the writing which is written in the king’s name, and sealed with the king’s ring, may no man reverse” (Esther 8:8). Therefore, King Ahasuerus can not “take back those word.” Instead, King Ahasuerus issues another edict allowing the Jews of Shushan to stand up and to defend themselves on that day.

Like our biblical ancestors, we too find that words once spoken are difficult to retrieve. A story is told of a remorseful Jew who approaches his rabbi before Yom Kippur. “Rabbi, I spoke poorly about my neighbor. I know it is a great sin to spread gossip, and I desperately want to repent before Yom Kippur. What can I do?” The rabbi responded, “Take this bag of feathers and place one on each doorstep in the village.” The contrite Jew eagerly carried out his rabbi’s instructions. He returned in a few hours and proudly informed the rabbi of his actions. The rabbi replied, “In order to complete your process of repentance, you must return to each of those homes and collect the feathers again.” Once again, this Jew rushed to fulfill the rabbi’s order. Days later he returned with a long face and a heavy heart. “Rabbi, I tried my best to collect those feathers, but the winds came and blew them all over the city. I could not collect them all.” The rabbi nodded and said, “Yes, my friend, that is the nature of our words. Once we have spoken them, we can not take them back.”

God has granted us the powerful gift of language, the tool of words to create our worlds. May God help us to guard our lips, and may God guide us to use our words wisely.

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.