The Power of Language

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Elie Lerea

ב) וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל רָאשֵׁי הַמַּטּוֹת לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר)

:זֶה הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְקֹוָק

ג) אִישׁ כִּי יִדֹּר נֶדֶר לַיקֹוָק אוֹ הִשָּׁבַע שְׁבֻעָה)

:לֶאְסֹר אִסָּר עַל נַפְשׁוֹ לֹא יַחֵל דְּבָרוֹ כְּכָל הַיֹּצֵא מִפִּיו יַעֲשֶׂה

In this week’s Parsha, the Torah introduces the basics laws of making a Neder. A person who makes a vow, according to the Torah, is required by law to ensure that “he shall not violate his word; according to whatever came out of his mouth, he shall do” (Numbers 30:3). Explaining this brief obligation, the Sifrei comments: “Heb. לֹא יַחֵל דְּבָרוֹ, like לֹא יְחַלֵּל דְּבָרוֹ ‘he shall not profane his word,’ he shall not treat his word as being unholy.” Using this reading as a springboard to ponder the essence of Nedarim, the Netivot Shalom articulates a two-part question about the entire concept of a vow. How is it, the Slonimer asks, that the words spoken in the form of a vow have an actual status of Kedusha, and moreover, what is it about a Neder that allows for a prohibition to befall upon an object or action that is otherwise permitted? In other words, how can it be that humans have the ability to use language in such a way that they can actually affect and change the spiritually determined concepts of issur v’heter?

Beginning his exploration of this question, the Slonimer quotes Rabbeinu Yonah’s commentary on Pirkei Avot, who writes (Avot 21:17): “כי יהודי המקדש את פיו נעשה פיו ככלי שרת” (“if a Jew makes his mouth holy, his mouth becomes like one of the vessels used in the mikdash”). As such, just as a holy tool has the ability to transform anything placed inside of it into a status of Kedusha, so to does the mouth have the ability to make words holy and eternally meaningful. But having answered the technical question of a Neder’s ability to provide an object or action with the chalot of a prohibition, it remains to be explained what it is about the mouth that has so much unique power and influence to deemed a holy tool.

In Isaiah 43, the prophet, speaking in the name of God, proclaims: “This people I formed for Myself; they shall recite My praise” (Isaiah 43:21). The Slonimer explains that, in linking the formation of Israel with their reciting praise of God, Isaiah is hinting at the fact that the primary reason for the creation of Israel is in order to praise God. With this in mind, it becomes clear why the mouth is considered above all else in its ability to affect and shape Kedusha in this world. Unlike any other body part, the mouth has the sole ability to articulate praise of God through human language.

Somewhat contradictory to his praise of language, however, the Slonimer closes with a peculiar remark. Using Shabbat as an example of a time in which people should refrain from trivial, unholy talk, he concludes that it is actually best on Shabbat to refrain from any speech as each moment of Shabbat should best be experienced in silence. If language has such powerful potential, though, why is it that the Kedusha of Shabbat is best experienced in silence?

Considering this approach to the unique role of the mouth and language in the worship and praise of God in light of contemporary philosophy of language can help clarify the appropriate centrality of language in the spiritual endeavor. Writing in 20th century Europe, Ludwig Wittgenstein thought of language as being the sole mechanism through which humans comprehend and think about the world. With such a model, language not only becomes the most useful tool for praising God, but such spiritual praise actually reflects back on the mind’s comprehension of the world and reframes humanity’s experience of the world to be one filled with God and Kedusha. But, like the Slonimer Rebbe, Wittgenstein, too, recognized the necessity for silence in the search for transcendence. In his famous proposition, Wittgenstein states that “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” (Tractatus 7). Despite language’s phenomenal ability to articulate and shape the ways in which humans think about the world, there are some experiences that cannot be quite articulated in words. When one encounters something beyond human comprehension, it is through silence, and not through language, that one responds to and recognizes its meaning.

Similar to Wittgenstein’s philosophical articulation, perhaps the Slonimer is also subtly hinting at the importance of recognizing certain experiences, presumably ones connected to God, as being best had in silence. In these moments without language and concepts, these moments of a still small voice, one can come to approach the infinite beyond by paradoxically articulating nothingness through silence. In this way, a Neder can help provide a model for structuring language in way that is productive for the worship of God by recognizing its unique power and influence. The Slonimer, however, keeps the Torah in check by maintaining a space for silence in the pursuit of Kedusha within human experience.

Elie Lerea (SBM 2016) is currently a rising senior at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art where  he is studying Electrical Engineering.

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