In preparation for Yom Kippur a few weeks ago, I discussed the liturgical list of confessions in the “Al chet” passage with a group of middle school students. Surveying the text, they identified no fewer than fifteen transgressions related to speaking, which raised the obvious question — why are sins of speech listed repeatedly in multiple variations throughout the confessional?
“Because,” one student offered, “those are things we can all relate to.”
Indeed, unlike various transgressions on the list like cheating in business, we have all said things we regret, or have been the victim of words that were harmful. We are all too familiar with the power of words.
As if to make sure we haven’t forgotten this message from the High Holy Days, the ensuing Torah reading cycle has continued to reinforce the theme of words. On Simchat Torah this past week, we finished the Book of Devarim and completed the annual reading of the Torah, after which we rolled the scrolls back to begin anew with Bereisheet
Devarim literally means “words,” and culminates with Moshe’s final oration. Bereisheet, meanwhile, opens with the story of creation through none other than divine speech — words creating worlds.
Ironically, in this week’s dramatic narrative of Cain and Abel, some words actually appear to be missing. The Hebrew reads, “Vayomer Kayin el Hevel achiv, vayehi bihyotam basadeh, vayakom Kayin al Hevel achiv vayahargehu,” that is, “Cain said to Abel his brother…and when they were in the field, Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him.” (Genesis 4:8) The Hebrew “vayomer” indicates that he “said” something. So what exactly did Cain say?
The Midrash in Bereisheet Rabbah creates multiple scenarios to fill in the scene. One version suggests the brothers argued about property; another posits that they quarreled over where the Temple would be built; and a third suggests their dispute centered around a romantic partner. Nechama Leibowitz, the great 20th century Torah commentator, points out that none of these scenarios are borne out by the context of the story. She concludes that the concern of the Midrash is not with Cain and Abel per se but rather the text’s universal application. That is, what are the underlying causes of fighting among humans? According to the Midrash, they are economic considerations, ideological motivations, and lustful desires.
The Midrash identifies these root causes of violence, but I would add that they need not be seen as intractable obstacles. Rather, they are serious problems that can nevertheless be resolved under the right conditions. Perhaps the gap in the text is an indication that the particulars of what they said was irrelevant. In this case it was actually what they didn’t say — words expressing understanding, acknowledgment, or willingness to compromise — that was critical. The text indicates that our words, when used with tact, discretion and empathy, can mean the difference between a dire ending and a peaceful solution, even among rivals.
Finally, the power of words may go beyond the text and beyond our interpersonal relations, even affecting the very assumptions that shape our culture and society. My former professor, Dr. Anne Lapidus Lerner, points to an interesting example from this week’s parasha, specifically the account of woman’s creation. If asked to describe it, many people would instinctively say that the first woman was created from the rib of Adam. As the story goes, the man was put to sleep, his rib was removed, and it was built into a woman. The image that emerges is that the man is the height of creation while the woman is an afterthought made from second-hand materials.
However, Lerner suggests that examining the Hebrew word tzela, typically translated here as “rib,” should lead to different conclusions. Thirty-eight times in the Bible, the word tzela means “side” or “side room”. Only in this passage is it translated differently. That makes “rib” an unlikely translation, which in turn transforms our image of the narrative. With this understanding of the word, we picture the woman as part of the original Adam, who had two sides. In this image she was incorporated into the divine plan for humankind’s creation from the beginning. No longer an afterthought, she is not secondary but in fact equal.
This exercise in language clarification reminds us that seemingly innocuous words can have great power to affect both communal ideas and also individuals’ sense of self. Misunderstood or misused, words can cause damage and inflict deep wounds. But like Bereisheet’s eloquent and majestic account, our own language can be tools of divine creation if used with care and compassion. It is precisely the power of speech that distinguishes humanity, endowing mankind with the potential for a meaningful and even sacred life marked by community and loving relationships — things we can all relate to.