Measured language

Measured language

Emor - Leviticus: 21:1-24:3

We are well into the period of “counting,” the sfirah, as it is called, short for sfirat ha’omer, “counting the omer.” Omer means “sheaf,” which is a bundle of stalks of grain, in this case, the wheat that is harvested for Shavuot. City dwellers may be forgiven if they do not know the difference between sheaves and stalks.

What we count, in any event, is not the sheaves, but the passage of time during which the wheat ripens, from the second night of Passover until Shavuot. The mitzva of counting is derived from this week’s Torah portion.

We no longer have a Temple and are hardly agrarian the way our ancestors were, so commentators connect the counting not to agricultural maturity of our crops, but to the moral maturity of our character, as demonstrated by how we use words. Appropriately, they couch their warning in plays on words.

Rav Yisra’el of Ruzhin rearranges the letters of the word “sfirah” to get “hasapir” (“f” and “p” are the same in Hebrew). Hasapir (literally, “sapphire”) is Ezekiel’s word for God’s throne (Ezekiel 1:26), described also in Exodus 10, where Moses and Aaron see it too as the very essence of “purity.” The sfirah becomes the opportunity to strive after purity.

And how do we do that? By watching what we say, for the same Hebrew root for “sfirah” reminds us also of sofer, the title for our early sages, the sofrim. They got that name, says the Viznitzer Rebbe, because they “counted” each and every word of Torah, a reminder to themselves to retain purity of speech.

Linguistic capacity is a reminder of God. When, at the very beginning of time, God said, “Let there be light,” God spoke the world into being, and human beings too create worlds through speech. Philosophers call the most obvious case “performative language,” as when we say “I bet you $50!” and just like that, a real bet is made. Similarly, if you say, “I promise,” a promise is born, bringing with it responsibility, accountability, and relationships based on trust. Words declare us married, send us to jail, or make us citizens — all of them worlds unto themselves.

More subtly, the verbal hint that we might look the other way creates a world where fraud or theft, or even rape or murder, may more easily occur. Our words collude in creating the crime. By contrast, words of justice and peace create a world of harmony.

This week’s sedra provides an illustration of how words matter: A man curses an adversary by uttering God’s name. “For pronouncing the name,” the Torah rules, “he shall be put to death.” But why? Do we think that God can be summoned by name like a genie in a bottle to do our will upon demand?

The issue is not God but the impact of language, as we see from the Hebrew verb root that is used here for “pronounce,” n-k-v. Etymologists relate it to k-v-v, “to curse,” but n-k-v (the form we have) means “to pierce or hollow out.” Think, by analogy, of the English idiom, “hollow promises”; when someone’s words “ring hollow,” their promise is of little substance. By using God’s name for evil, one hollows it out, empties it of the grandeur, the goodness, and the promises that are associated with it.

Yet these promises are profound. Midrash Rabbah ends its discussion of our sedra by recollecting them: God accompanies us in our despair; despair is not forever; God will someday redeem us.

We live in an age when these promises are dismissed as empty; and not so incidentally, we live in an era, also, when people habitually punctuate sentences with the foul language of curses. Cursing our way through life robs life of nobility; it destroys the faith in promise, because the God whose name gets dragged into the gutter can hardly be the same God who raises us up from despair.

The seven weeks of the s’firah therefore ask us to measure not just time but language. It challenges us to curb our tendency to cheapen life by cheapening talk.

The s’firah counts upward toward Shavuot, when we reenact the giving of Torah. Like Moses on Mount Sinai, we too may catch a glimpse of the sapir, the throne that glistens like glass in all its purity, and if we do, it would be nice to see our reflection there, equally pure. It would be nice to know that the words we use are deserving of the Torah we get.

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