D’var Torah: Magen avot bidvaro – the power of words

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 26 July 2019

Magein avot bidvaro m’chayei meitim b’ma’amaro
“You shielded your ancestors through your word, give life beyond death through Your speech”

A moment ago we chanted the special repetition of the evening Amidah for Erev Shabbat.  Known as the ‘seven faceted blessing’ it reflects within it all seven of the blessings of the Shabbat Amidah.
In it, we asserted the power of divine speech.  By word and speech, we said, God protects and gives life.  And by extension, created in God’s image, so can we.  Our words, too, have the power to protect and to create.

It is a recurring theme in our tradition – the creative and the destructive power of words.
It is a theme to which we will return tomorrow morning when we read in our Torah portion about vows – promises made out loud in God’s name.

In our tradition – especially to the rabbis – vows were treated with a great deal of suspicion.  They were understood to be truly binding.  If words matter, a sacred promise is a serious thing.
And to the rabbis it was not enough to keep one’s word.  A promise made also needed to be considered and worthwhile in itself.  The text that will be read as tomorrow morning’s Kollot haftarah ends with a reference to King Yannai, who was the Hasmonean ruler of Judea in the first half of the first century B.C.E. It is said of him that he had 2000 towns all of which were destroyed for the making of vows that were kept.  The vows themselves were not serious enough.
It is not enough to keep promises – we have to be careful what we vow for.

Once again this week we have reason to reflect on the power of words, a week in which we have experienced new national leadership taking office:
A new leader who is lauded for his way with words, and yet, knowing their power, still sometimes takes them lightly, not acknowledging the damage that they can do.
A new era.  One that will be defined it seems by whether a promise is kept – even though that promise has divided us, may be impossible to achieve.  No longer are the merits of the vow a matter of concern, only its keeping.
And new vows, always new vows.  The new leadership began – as is so often the case – with a raft of new promises.  Words perhaps meant, perhaps not.  Words used lightly.

Magein avot bidvaro – You shielded your ancestors through your word.
We pray that as we enter this new period in the life of our country, the power of words will be used to protect, to shield those who are vulnerable, not to destroy or to vilify, to expose.

M’chayei meitim b’ma’amaro – give life through Your speech
And that the power of words be used truly for life – used as a source of creativity, of real success and wellbeing for all.