Life and death live in the power of words

Rabbi Lori Levine


The natural desire to make meaning of our world caused human beings to develop hundreds of origin stories, each unique to the culture and people who created them.

The Babylonian origin story describes a world that emerged out of utter chaos, with the gods turning on one another, battling for supremacy. 

In the Cherokee story of creation, a little water beetle comes down from the sky and digs up mud from the bottom of the sea to create land.

Mbombo, a creator god sacred to tribes located in the Democratic Republic of Congo, was a giant whose stomachache caused him to vomit up the sun, moon and stars.

These examples just scratch the surface of these rich traditions.


This week’s Torah portion presents us with the Jewish version of the creation of the world. In the beginning, there was only God. The Earth was “unformed and void.” Va-yomer: God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light (Genesis 1:3).

The way that God created the universe is not just another nice story. It is the key to unlocking one of Judaism’s most powerful teachings. God does not give birth to the world like a mother, nor does God fight a cosmic war. God speaks the world into being with God’s own words. We owe everything that we are and that we know to intentional words strung together with sacred purpose.

Throughout Bereishit, speech and its impact develop into a core theme. With crafty words, the serpent persuades Eve to go against God’s instructions not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Because of the serpent’s words, God speaks again to punish Adam and Eve, causing suffering, pain and death to enter the world. From this we learn that all words have consequences. Words can create and destroy, build up and tear down, changing the course of the universe.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great 20th century Jewish philosopher and theologian, often taught this lesson. Almost two decades after his death, Rabbi Heschel’s daughter Susannah published a collection of her father’s essays called “Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity.” In her introduction, she writes of her father:

“Words, he often wrote, are themselves sacred, God’s tool for creating the universe, and our tools for bringing holiness – or evil – into the world. He used to remind us that the Holocaust did not begin with the building of crematoria, and Hitler did not come to power with tanks and guns; it all began with uttering evil words, with defamation, with language and propaganda. Words create worlds, he used to tell me when I was a child. They must be used very carefully. Some words, once having been uttered, gain eternity and can never be withdrawn. The Book of Proverbs reminds us, he wrote, that death and life are in the power of the tongue.”


Decades after Rabbi Heschel taught these insightful words, and thousands of years after the creation story first passed from generation to generation, we still have much to learn. In the realm of our national policy and government, I fervently pray daily for our leaders to remember the power of words to make and unmake worlds. Their public speech affects our lives and our safety.

On Oct. 5, faced with the deaths of more than 210,000 of his fellow citizens amid a global pandemic and after being treated for days in the hospital for COVID-19, President Donald Trump decided to publicly share the following words on Twitter:

“I will be leaving the great Walter Reed Medical Center today at 6:30 p.m. Feeling really good! Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life … I feel better than I did 20 years ago!”

The reaction was almost immediate. Survivors of the virus and family members who lost loved ones to COVID-19 were outraged. Doctors, ethicists and scientists feared this would lead to more careless behavior. People from all walks of life have called Trump out for his irresponsible speech.

NPR recently published a piece about the upset reactions of everyday people who are particularly vulnerable to the virus because of their jobs. Grocery store workers, health care workers, cleaning personnel and other low-wage workers do not have access to the same privileged health care and treatment the president received. In just 50 words, one person managed to inflict pain on the worlds of many.

I believe that Jewish tradition calls us to reject such a careless, unsympathetic approach to our words. We must do better, treating each letter with respect, weighing each syllable cautiously, considering what saying certain words out loud (in person or online) will do to destroy and create.

When we speak, we should strive to follow the example of the Holy One, creating for good, building up the world in a way that reflects our highest values and aspirations.

May our words only be blessings.

Rabbi Lori Levine is rabbi educator at Congregation Shaare Emeth and a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association of St. Louis, which coordinates the d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.