Words are critical. Of all humanity’s many achievements, language is by far our greatest. Dismissing the obvious, trendy and anti-humanistic “observation” that “other animals also employ language”, from the dances of bees to the songs of whales, we’ve never detected any messages more complex and sophisticated than “go there for food” or “avoid there because of danger”. All of our many accomplishments, be they in creating ethics-based societies, technological advances, philosophies, scientific discovery and more are enabled through the use of our ability to form and express abstract ideas.
While English divides the world into a neutral, value-free mineral-vegetable-animal, Hebrew explores more deeply and provides a hierarchy of concepts: Inanimate (mineral), Living (vegetable), Moving (animal) and Speaking (Man). And while it’s a popular contemporary conceit to ignore and deny any distinction whatsoever (other than, perhaps, in terms of “destructiveness and inherent evil”–note: this comment is meant sarcastically) between Man and the rest of creation, the very fact that we, human beings, are even discussing such issues is a pretty clear indication of our unique role.
Words are holy.
Words are often inadequate. We praise, in other words we establish and maintain a relationship with The Creator with words, even if words such as “The Creator” are completely incapable of describing or defining The Creator, merely labeling a concept beyond words, beyond even the concept of concepts. We use words to heal and comfort ourselves and others (of course, we also use other means we’ve developed such as medicine (traditional and “scientific”)). We form relationships with other people and create intimacy largely with words. When necessary, we can sometimes use the concept of communication, based on words, to use languages beyond words, such as visual art, music, dance. The story in the Torah of Adam naming all the animals really means that he discovered and described the essential nature of external reality based on the power inherent in words, letters and even fragments of letters, the basic elements of language. Even the Hebrew word for Man, אדם, Adam, is based on א, Aleph, which represents the transcendent and Divine, and דם, Dam, which not only refers to blood (i.e. animal) but also to silence. We lift merely animal existence into a higher realm by refusing to remain silent!
But like everything else in our world, words on their own are basically neutral. They can build and they can destroy, they can create love and they can bring pain. Because we humans, granted the twin to the power of speech, also have the power to choose how we use words.
Words repeated often lose their power and meaning. Repeated over and over with evil intent can create the illusion of truth even when they’re really lies. (Nowadays we call them “narratives”.) Used deviously, we might think we’re convincing others but, eventually, the inner rot of this misuse of language will emerge and become visible to all, described as a “skin disease” (a change in outward appearance) in the Torah portion Metzora. Words are holy.
But the false use of words, especially in more subtle and, often, well-meaning ways can bring even deeper damage, especially to the speaker.
In a feel-good society, many words become euphemised, dulled and stripped of their meaning. Because feeling bad about oneself is considered unacceptable and to be avoided at all costs, we’re cheated of proper diagnostics of our true condition and, thus, blocked from growing and improving. When sin and evil are minimized as “missing the mark”, not only do we have no incentive to change, we focus on the lie that we are, just as we are, fine and perfect. “Born this way” and not subject to growth. Enslaved to superficiality, we’re unable to cry out to God, to reach higher than the mundane, to transcend that which, certainly, we have in common with all Being, and fulfill the unique promise of being Man, enabled and ennobled by words.