From the month before Rosh Hashanah to the day after Yom Kippur, I am deluged with words. Hebrew words. English words. Transliterations from Hebrew to English characters. Prayer words. Poem words. Sermon words. If I had hair, I’d be tempted to tear it out…
At least I’m not a native Khmer speaker. Their alphabet contains 72 letters; an On Beyond Zebra phenomenon brought to life! Maybe I’d be better off in Suriname where about 400,000 people speak a Creole dialect called Sranan. There are 340 vocabulary words in Sranan, which is also called Taki Taki. How much can you say with 340 words? Apparently, enough.
So many words! Haim Nachman Bialik, the national poet of Israel, once wrote, “Every day, consciously and unconsciously, human beings scatter heaps of words to the wind, with all their various associations; few men indeed know or reflect on what these words were like in the days when they were at the height of their power.. . .” And then there’s Flaubert’s heartbreaking truism from Madame Bovary, “Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.”
Even as I write this critique of language and the excesses it engenders, I am aware of the fact that I’m using, well, words! It’s like if you watch yourself driving and then start to wonder, “How do I know I’m supposed to speed up or slow down? Am I sure this is the gas and not the brake?” Observing muscle memory can be disorienting.
Bialik and Flaubert were right. Words are cheap and often inadequate. They rarely match what we are really feeling. Then there is the endless bloviation of political hacks and cable’s talking heads. And I suppose it would be bad form not to admit, particularly on this Shabbat Shuva, the weekend between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, my tendency to talk too much, and pollute the air a la Bialik, with heaps of words… It feels increasingly difficult to sift through all this verbiage for words that matter. It feels increasingly difficult to discern the difference between sincerity and spin – even in our speech, let alone the speech of others.
But what else are we to do? Most of us aren’t artists. Most of us aren’t poets. So all we have are words. Words are imperfect creations, just like us. With these imperfect tools, we are asked to do our best between now and Kol Nidre to ask those we have sinned against for forgiveness. We are also called upon to listen to the words of others, to forgive those who come to us with a truly repentant heart.
With my meagre words, I ask for your forgiveness if I have in any way let you down or hurt your feelings. It is a true blessing in my life to serve as your rabbi. I hope my words resonate with the gratitude I feel in my heart. Have a sweet and healthy new year and an easy fast.