Even now, it is still painful for me to relive the events of that day. I can count on one hand—five fingers too many—the number of times that my words broke the spirit of another human being. Four of these instances happened with the closest of relatives. Each instance still pains me. And how many times have I caused lesser wounds?
I’m reminded of these transgressions each year at this time by this week’s Torah portion, Bereishit. I regret what I said. But maybe even more important is that, each year at this time, I also remind myself that words have power.
“And God spoke.”
This action, of speaking, of expressing ideas and of breathing forth the world, the exultation and intonation; this creative impulse that’s made manifest through and by words: this is what God spoke. Our narrative deemphasizes the order of creation and the exactitude of its formation and emphasizes creation coming into being out of nothing but words. And as we are created in the likeness of God, so too are we imbued with the power to name and to ascribe station to ourselves and to others.
But words can also destroy. This week’s reading includes Cain melancholy following God’s rejection of his offering, an unrecorded exchange of words between brothers, and Abel’s death at Cain’s hand. What were the words? How did they denigrate and how might they have elevated?
Our words can build new worlds. They can inspire and heal. But they also have the potential to tear down. Bereishit begs of us to use them wisely.