Tripping Over Words
One of my favorite activities is meeting with pre-bar/bat mitzvah students to talk about their Torah and Haftarah readings.
I recently asked a student, Jennifer, about Parashat Korah, and, in particular, about the sequence of events that involves Korah and Moses. I explained that in her Torah portion, Korah, a prominent Israelite wandering in the desert under God’s leadership through Moses, was unhappy with how Moses was handling things. But rather than try to work things out, Korah instigated revolution. Numbers 16:3 reports that Korah publicly chastised Moses, and then one verse later, that Moses “fell upon his face.” I asked Jennifer if she knew what “fell upon his face” means.
I didn’t expect her to know. How could she? It’s a biblical expression that we don’t have in English, and, in fact, as a translator I wouldn’t even use that odd phrase in English.
But Jennifer surprised me and answered the question with remarkable and unusual insight. She told me she thought that Moses tripped over Korah’s words.
In that one answer, the student brilliantly understood what is widely regarded to be the point of the story, and she based it firmly in the larger context of Judaism.
Our words have power. Judaism is clear on that. This Yom Kippur — as we do every year — we will read from Deuteronomy about the power of words. God puts before all of us blessing and curse, commanding that we choose blessing over curse. The point there is not “cursing out” (though that’s probably a bad idea, too), but rather actual curses: saying something bad to make something bad happen. Contrarily, blessings are when you say something good to make something good happen. On our holiest day of the year we remind the congregation that we all have the power to bless and to curse, and that we are commanded to choose blessing.
Of course, the connected notions that our words have power and that we have to choose wisely are not confined to Jewish thought. We find the same sentiments in aphorisms — “The pen is mightier than the sword,” after all, and “if you have nothing good to say, don’t say anything at all.” — and in laws against slander.
We actually have two Torah readings on Yom Kippur. The first, as we just saw, deals with the power of words. The second, generally called the holiness code, comes from Leviticus 19. It’s a detailed description of what to do and what not to do in order to be holy.
Some of the ordinances seem to be particularly innovative and forward looking, as in Leviticus 19:15, which warns against judicial favoritism based on economic position. That’s something we’re still grappling with thousands of years later.
By contrast, Leviticus 19:14, just one verse earlier, seems to prohibit something so cruel that, one would hope, we wouldn’t need a warning not to do it: “Don’t place an obstacle before the blind.” Is that something people were doing? Is that, like favoritism, something we have to worry about?
Yes, says my student, because the obstacle can be our unseen words. When Korah spoke out publicly against Moses, he put an obstacle before him. And because even Moses couldn’t see spoken words, Moses was like a blind man, and he tripped.
Korah’s unkind actions had a short-term and long-term impact, and neither of them was good. First, 250 people died. Then 14,700 more. All because of Korah’s words.
When children think of power, physicality most naturally comes to mind. One of my projects for the upcoming year is to make it clearer that words — of education, praise, consolation, and support, but also of misdirection, condemnation, antagonism, and back-stabbing — all have power. When we open our mouths, we change the world.
I’m going to take my cue from Jennifer who insightfully connected both Yom Kippur readings. There’s the easy part: we shouldn’t make the blind stumble. And there’s the harder part: if we’re not careful, our words can be the instruments of damage. And there’s the lesson from Leviticus: when we fail, the whole community suffers.
I hope you’ll join me in looking forward to a year free of verbal stumbling blocks.