It was 1988, or perhaps 1989; I was sitting next to my grandfather in the plush velvet seats of Beth Joseph synagogue on Yom Kippur, as the Book of Jonah was being read, when I noticed something new, something that had been absent, for me at least, in similar moments in years past.
The text in question featured the Hebrew word “koom” multiple times. And I had always taken that repeated directive to be imperative: Get up! Go! But on this occasion, on that Day of Awe, the word was transformed, no longer a command but a plea: Koom! Arise! Make haste! Fulfill your role! The words had morphed in meaning, and in power and impact, from one year to the next. Which is, in a way, the definition of growth: my understanding had changed because I had changed.
In Haazinu, this week’s Torah portion, Moses speaks in the ears of all of Israel, while heaven and earth attune to such testimony:
Incline thine ears O heaven, for fain would I speak, And hear O earth the words of my mouth. That my Teaching may penetrate like the loosening rain. (Deuteronomy 32:1)
And they are just words. Words spoken and heard, told and retold, visited anew, year after year, generation after generation, by those who are born to Judaism, as well as by those who choose it for a myriad of reasons.
For it is not a Word, empty of you, but it is your very life… (Deuteronomy 32:47)
There is not a word in the world that exists outside of the meaning ascribed to it, by societies and individuals alike. Our language is fluid and everchanging—even to the extent that there are grammatical terms to describe the way words and their meanings shift over time, regenerating and degenerating, so that “awful” or ‘to be full of awe’ becomes “awful,” a darker shade of emotion.
The word is not empty of you.
In each reading of the Torah, static words etched on parchment come alive again, brought to new life with context and time and epoch, all of which are themselves constantly changing. How these words are read and how they are lived are just this: they are read and they are lived by me and by you.
May this year bring each of us the ability to listen to these words as if for the first time, and, like the nurturing rain bringing forth new growth, to hear them for the call they are, for better lives, a better community, and a better world.
Rabbi Jay Strear
President & CEO
Please email Rabbi Strear at CEO@JEWISHcolorado.org with comments or questions.