Shabbat BaMidbar: Words and Silence

June 2, 2022 by Jeremy Rosen
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We start a new book of the Torah this week, Bamidbar. Which in non-Jewish terminology is the Book of Numbers probably because it starts with a census. But in Hebrew, it is In the Desert!

The word Midbar meaning desert is made up of the same letters as Daber, to speak. This is ironic given that a desert is a place of silence. I remember hiking in the Negev more than fifty years ago and I  have never experienced such overwhelming almost cleansing silence. It is the last place one would associate with speaking, with words. And yet so many of the greatest mystics and religious giants found inspiration in the wilderness and encountered God there, rather than in the noisy crowds of cities or concerts. But it was in the wilderness that the most creative moments and words that are the foundation of the Jewish people were experienced.

The creation started with God speaking, “let there be.” Let us be. Let us be kind to each other even if we do disagree. But it was the words of the Aseret Hadibrot, the Ten Commandments, or statements that God spoke to Moses on Sinai that have had such an impact on human society. Human beings have been called in the Zohar the “speaking animal,” Adam Memallel. Another word that means an ability to express oneself. Words are so magnificent, so essential, and yet so much abused and misused.

We respect words that we recite in our prayers when we read the Torah or study. Words are the channel through which the Bible has God communicating with humans in dream states, visions, or, as in the case of Moses, awake and conscious. God speaks. And the highest form of respect is not to use personal words but indirectly. The Torah is very much concerned with how when we speak to each other and as well as how we use words as tools of destruction.

The Torah is full of warnings against using speech negatively, gossiping, insulting, humiliating, and deceiving.  The expression Nivul Peh, an ugly mouth, describes the way some use language destructively, crudely, and offensively. The world we live in devalues words. We are surrounded by swear words, profanities, and dirt in every area of society. Our most intimate selves are displayed everywhere for anyone to see, and our private thoughts are sold to the highest bidder as if this were good or healthy. There is no constraint. Sometimes, as the rabbis say, silence is nest!

We now live in a world of abbreviations, crude dog language, and a sense that no standards, no verbal limits, so long as you do not, heaven forbid, correct anyone, or give them the impression that they are not perfect or entitled to do as they please. One has to tread a minefield of poetical correctness but not of respect and constraint. Words like all tools can liberate us from paganism and the randomness of irrationality or they can enslave us. Freedom did not mean having any constraints, saying anything and everything.

Shavuot and Sinai celebrate words, Divine, spiritual as well as functional. However, we need special occasions to remind us of how healing words can be and how uplifting. The Book of Ruth uses words of kindness, comfort, reassurance, community, and warmth between humans. And at the same time, the words of the Decalogue remind us of the need for morality, restraint, control, and discipline. We need both. And yet when all is said and done, sometimes, often, silence is best.

Numbers Chapters 1-4:20

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

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