Immense power of words cannot be limited except by imagination


These are the words — that’s how the book begins and that’s what we call the fifth book of the Torah in Hebrew and the first portion of the book — Devarim, words, in English Deuteronomy. These are the words, which Moses spoke unto all Israel beyond the Jordan, in the wilderness (Deuteronomy 1:1).

Devarim begins with the evocative root word: davar, appearing three times in the first verse, as “words” (eileh ha-de-va-rim), as “spoke” (dibber), as “wilderness” (midbar). Big clue. Surely this is one of the most interesting and evocative root words of the Torah, the word or the thing that also becomes the place of the wilderness. So what is the wilderness? The place of the word, the absence of the word, the sensitivity to the word, the word itself? Or the thing? The thing itself? The essence of the thing? And what are the words? Ah, but that’s the point: they are illimitable, our greatest tool — the ultimate source of creativity. When you have language, you have everything. One of my colleagues asked me: is that what we are doing? Just giving language to what we know? Take the “just” out of that sentence, I said, we are giving language to what we know. To teach a vocabulary is a great gift — a way to parse existence, a language to frame our questions and our answers, our responses and our absence of responses.

One of the earliest of our mystical texts is the Sefer Yetzirah, the Book of Formation. It begins with this: with thirty two wondrous paths of wisdom, God created the world. . .with three sefarim, with sefer, s’far, sippur. First, about the thirty-two paths, they might be the ten elementals and the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet because language is the tool of ultimate creativity. Thirty-two paths are ten fundamentals and twenty-two letters with which to turn the fundamentals, expand them, draw them out. With language, the limitations of creativity are only the limitations of one’s own imagination.

What are the three sefarim? Same root, three different senses: sefer is book, or text, s’far is number or principle, and sippur is story. God created the world through language, a text a source and some elementary principles that we are always searching for, articulating, something that God built into Creation for us to understand. And the story, the commentary, something for us co-creators to expand what is built in, our on-going dialogue with Godliness. This, too, is Godliness itself — both the source and the commentary, the principles and their application, what is given and what is supplied, as if we human beings are about the business of tapping the mind of God, as it were, to reveal more and more. These are the words — the source words and the commentary, the text and its stories, the principles and their applications.

The limits are only the limits of our imaginations. Take the “only” out of that sentence.

Rabbi James Stone Goodman of Congregation Neve Shalom prepared this week’s Torah Portion.