Year of the Good Word

Yom Kippur 5776

I've been grieving over the past few days over some words I said that I can’t take back. I yelled at my teenager in the most unseemly way. It was surprising enough to both of us that the teenager said, “Irwin, what is this really about?” And we were able to have a nice little meta-conversation that we don’t usually get to have. Although my stupid pride – or stupid shame – kept me from adding other pieces of the picture, like:

your brother left for college yesterday and I’m really sad;


it’s almost Yom Kippur and I’m full of self-doubt .

In any event, the immediate outcome of all of this was by all appearances okay. I apologized. He accepted my apology. But I was left haunted by my own words, wishing, like we all do, that I could take them back, and try the whole moment over again.

Because words are powerful. Torah tells us that this world came into existence through words (Psalms 33:6). God said, “Light!” and there was light. And then onward through a whole week of directives, with heaven, earth, tree, bug and human appearing one after the other, like exclamation points at the end of each of God’s sentences.

Our mystics understood words to be sources of power. Combinations of letters could force God’s hand. Words inscribed in clay could raise a golem to life or consign it back to the dust. In the kabbalistic view, the structure of our whole reality rests not on atoms or waves but on 22 Hebrew letters, like how in the Matrix movies reality is a projection of binary code.

Jews believe in the power of words. That’s why we have a Yom Kippur prayer like Kol Nidre, where we try to undo them. We say,

Release us from our vows. Let our oaths be not-oaths and our promises be not-promises.

The Kol Nidre prayer arose in times when Jews were sometimes forced to make oaths of fealty to king or cause or god not of our choosing. But I think it’s equally as powerful as a lament over our own, everyday misuse of words. We ask for our words to be nullified, for them to be reeled back in as if they were never uttered. We know that can’t happen. But we pray that at least the damage we’ve unleashed can somehow be stemmed.

Words are powerful and they can hurt in a million ways. As kids we used to say, “Sticks and stones can break my bones but names will never hurt me,” an adage that is an obvious lie. Because years later, the broken bones of our childhoods are healed. But the wounds from the names we were called, from the taunts of our tormentors or the fault-finding of our loved ones, continue to haunt us and to hobble us. My worst childhood memories do not involve fists, which I was reasonably good at dodging. The memories that haunt me are about words. There are a million examples. But I’ll just share that when the high school band, within a litany of cutesy year-end awards, voted me “biggest fruit” and this was read aloud by the band director to the band, the damage included an end of my musical life until I was coaxed back in my thirties.

Words are powerful.

And words are cheap. Now more than ever. I open my computer and am met by hundreds of emails; mostly ads; aptly called spam – both tasteless and treyf. By the time I get up from my screen, I have wasted hours of my “one wild and precious life”[1]on thousands of words that do no honor to this world and make no effort to.

The truth is that I love words. I studied linguistics for years. Words can tell you history much like fossils or the rings of a tree can. You can guess at migrations and cultural contact and technological developments and the evolution of metaphors that become so commonplace we don’t even notice that they’re metaphors.

Words are brilliant. And I think they deserve better than how we have come to use them. I think they have the right to convey something of substance, whether it’s love or hope or wonderment or consolation or important information (of course) or song or respectful disagreement or even playful nonsense. They obviously can carry other kinds of content, but I don’t think they like it.

In my first, short-lived lawyer job, I learned that my words were for hire. They had a kind of economic value whether or not I actually agreed with them. And as I assembled strings of words to help defend polluters or Savings & Loan looters, I felt both my unhappiness and theirs.

Compared to that, my career as a singing drag queen was a dream. I could say anything! Fling words into the air in song and in jest, making people laugh. I would know before I said it how each word would land. In the Kinsey Sicks, we would use our words to poke fun at power, to point out injustice, even to make fun of funny things about words themselves. How lovely was this! But there was an occupational hazard too. I became – and still am – a little too quick with the sarcastic quip. See, the culture prizes ironic humor because we live in a cynical time. No one expects much good to happen. We expect to be laughed at if we speak from our hearts. So we speak indirectly, ironically, with a certain roll of the eyes embedded right into the syllables. I do value being funny. But I’m learning that it’s not always good for me to lead with it. Because I have too often let loose an automatic, not fully thought-out sarcastic comment and as the words leave my mouth I’ve seen them look back over their shoulders at me with disapproval.

Now wouldn’t it be nice if our words had veto power? If they could refuse us if they disagree with the purpose we’re putting them to. What if I opened my mouth in anger at my kid or unthinkingly in sarcasm and found that my words weren’t even there, that they had absconded to some margarita bar somewhere on the far side of my cerebral cortex, waiting for me to chill out. Wouldn’t that be nice?

Sadly that’s not the case. Words seem to show up for duty, no matter how dirty the deed. And that always surprises me. When some bub says to a presidential candidate, “We have a problem in this country; it’s called Muslims…when can we get rid of them,” I wonder how words can even contain such ugliness. How is it that they don’t shatter at its touch, like searing tea poured into glass, leaving shards of broken syllables scattered on the floor.

And then in those “We have a problem in this country; it’s called Muslims” moments, we wait with hope for the candidate’s courageous riposte. Words that will put a halt to the hate mongering and redeem the moment and our morality. And the right words are there, in the bullpen, powerful words, real sluggers, saying, “Pick me! Pick me! Send me in.” But instead, the politician responds: “We’re going to be looking at a lot of different things.” Using words to say nothing but only to wink back at hate.

Now it’s easy to condemn this particular pair of interlocutors. That particular moment was high profile and is still on our minds. Be aren’t we all guilty – I know I am – of leaving the right words in the bullpen when they’re needed? When someone speaks hatefully about Muslims, or patronizingly about African Americans, or makes a cheap joke at the expense of transgender people or fat people or Jews or some other easy, popular target. All those times that we leave our good words un-deployed – those are moments for which we need to make teshuvah. And to hope that the Kol Nidre prayer can reel back in not only our harsh words but also our complicit silences.

So I’ve decided that for me, 5776 is going to be the year of Right Speech. The year of the Good Word. Since last year, the shmitah year, represented the shabbes of a seven-year cycle, this year must represent the first day of Creation, the one in which God first spoke; the day in which words first had consequence. So here are 3 Jewish principles that I’m going to offer myself, and you by association, to guide my tongue.

(1) Be like Hillel: kind and humble in your speech.

There’s a famous story in Talmud of a long-raging dispute between the School of Rabbi Hillel and the School of Rabbi Shammai.[2] A heavenly voice suddenly intrudes into the assembly and says eylu v’eylu divrei Elohim chayim. “Both these and those are the words of the living God.” Meaning that your adversary’s words might also come from a holy impulse, even if you don’t agree with them. Seeing that possibility can shift your feelings in any conflict. But there’s more. The heavenly voice continues, announcing that despite the holiness of everyone’s words, the School of Hillel wins. “Why?” asks Talmud, and goes right on to answer.

“Because they were kindly and modest and spoke about their opponents’ view before their own,” unlike the School of Shammai, which had been known to go out of their way to scold Jews for the way they kept the law. So, Principle #1: be like Hillel. Let your words be kindly and modest.

(2) Keep me from Lashon Hara

The idea of lashon hara, of evil speech, is an old one in Judaism. It focuses less on speaking meanly to someone, which mostly we all try to resist, and instead on speaking meanly about someone behind their back. Sometimes it is subtle. It can take the form of a joke. Or even just a tone of voice.

I do this more than I’d like to admit. It’s terrible and cowardly and so inviting because there isn’t a huge risk of being caught. And we can’t really pretend that it doesn’t hurt the person just because they’re not hearing it. It paves the way for other people to judge or mistreat them. And it hurts us too. It makes us more and more practiced at being uncompassionate; and I do not want a neshomeh that is practiced at being uncompassionate. So, Principle #2: keep off the lashon hara. If saying something about someone makes you feel gleefully guilty, maybe you actually don’t need to say it.

(3) Silence is an Option

Sometimes in all of our struggles figuring out what is the right thing to say and what is the wrong thing to say, we forget that not saying is also available to us. That silence isn’t just absence of sound; it has heft and substance. Psalm 65 says, “God, to you silence is tehilah – praise.”[3]

Silence is in itself a psalm. Psalm 46 says, “Be still, and know that I am God.”[4]

So maybe once, instead of delivering the well-timed quip, I might opt instead for silence. Profound things can happen in the silence. We can more readily relocate our Hillel-like compassion and humility. And sometimes, in the silence, if we listen, we can hear the kol d’mamah dakah, the still, small voice. The deep intuition or the angelic encouragement. What we stand to gain in our silence is sometimes far greater than what we stand to gain by opening our mouths, certainly by opening our mouths in anger or annoyance. And the soul-space that your silence opens up in you is now a new vessel to receive the light of the Shechinah. And doesn’t that sound nice? So Principle #3: Consider Silence.

So with these three principles and more as I stumble upon them, I enter this year of Right Speech, this year of the Good Word.

In Torah, in the Book of Numbers, there is a moment when an angel with a sword appears in the path of a prophet on his way to curse the Children of Israel. I want that. I want that app. May I be blessed when I open my mouth with a curse at the ready, that an angel appears before me. No sword necessary. The angel is enough. And may it stop me from my errand.

May I put my words to good use. And may I hold them with the care that I might hold a beloved child. And may I hold the child with the greatest care of all.

Wishing friends and readers a g'mar chatimah tovah.


[1] “The Summer Day,” by Mary Oliver.

[2] Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 13b

[3] Psalm 65:2

[4] Psalm 46:10