Words That Challenge, Words That Work


Allow me to share with you a concept I call Jewish "eTiquette" – and yes, I am deliberately spelling the word this way. Were you to ask what our tradition attributes as the first thing created by God, you no doubt would be tempted to go to the first verse of the Torah – the road map of creation and our blueprint for Jewish life.

Bereshit bara Elokim et hashamayim v'et ha'aretz: "In the beginning of God's creating the heavens and the earth," would be a proper translation. So what was created first – heaven or earth? Or maybe, something else.

Listen to this fascinating rabbinic understanding based upon a careful read and an attentive ear to the verse. Notice that the word et is prominent in the verse. Et is comprised of two Hebrew letters, aleph and tav.

In modern Hebrew, one can hardly make a move without confronting and bumping into this small, staccato word. It must always appear before a direct object, and it defies translation. But enough of grammar – let's discover and uncover something more titillating.

History records that David Ben-Gurion proposed to the Society of Hebrew Language the nullification of this small, two-lettered Hebrew word on the theory that it means nothing. Yet he did not grasp this essential Jewish truth. When answering the question of what was created first, an intriguing rabbinic tradition answered: et.

What was created first was the first Hebrew letter, aleph with the last Hebrew letter, tav – and by extension, everything in between. In a word, what God created first in our world was the alphabet. Through the commingling of letters, words were formed, and here's the punchline – words create worlds.

Of course, the inverse must also be true: If words create, they can also destroy. If words have the innate ability to "raise up," they also have the inherent ability to "raze down."

It's no mystery that the 2000 edition of Time magazine determined that the most seminal event of the previous two millennia was the invention of the printing press. What is a printing press, if not the ability to have words come together to be disseminated far and wide.

So it would seem that Ben- Gurion got this one wrong. The word et does not mean "nothing." It means "everything." Indeed, Pirkei Avot ("The Ethics of the Fathers") teaches: "With 10 utterances was the world created."

Words not only influence and inspire, they transform, fashion and create. A lovely thought, but certainly I don't mean this literally, right? My one word answer is: mokusatsu – that's the 1040 EZ version. Here's the longer one.

In a fascinating book by Richard Lederer titled The Miracle of Language, he relates the following incident from World War II. On July 26, 1945, the Allied leaders – Harry S. Truman, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin – gather in Potsdam, Germany, to issue the Japanese an ultimatum: unconditional surrender.

The imperial Cabinet of Japan issued a reply: mokusatsu. Now, the words of Lederer: "Mokusatsu can mean either 'We are considering it,' or 'We are ignoring it.' " The man who issued the English-language translation of the statement for the Domei news agency used "ignore" in the broadcast monitored by the English speaking press.

On Aug. 6, Truman ordered the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima, and then, three days later, on Nagasaki. Continues Lederer: "In the 20 days that followed the confusion of mokusatsu, more than 150,000 men, women and children were lost. One word misinterpreted."

"Death and life are in the power of the tongue," declares King Solomon in Proverbs. It would so seem even literally. This week the Torah speaks of a manifestation known as tza'ra'at, usually translated as "leprosy." Whatever it is, this much we know.

The Talmud declares that the root cause and etiology of this phenomenon was the sin of malicious speech – lashon hara. Judaism is not only concerned with what we put in our mouths, but also with what comes out. For a Jew, eTiquette is not just something for the table. 

Rabbi David Gutterman is executive director of Vaad: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.




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