When using your words isn’t enough

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By Rabbah Arlene Berger

Special to WJW


This week’s Torah portion is Noach, Genesis 6:9-11:32.

They say every rabbi really only has three sermons. Mine are: We are created B’tzelem Elohim/in God’s image. As humans we are fallible. And words have power.

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This week’s parshah illustrates all three. We see how the fallibility of humanity causes the flood and the building of the Tower of Babel. The idea that we are created in God’s image was on the minds of the people who decided to build the tower in the first place, although they were not trying to emulate God so much as trying to be God — never a good idea. Every time I read a parshah, a different lesson is revealed to me. This year, the Tower of Babel story with its focus on the power of words seems more relevant than ever. Who hasn’t been in a situation in which everyone is speaking the same language, but somehow no one seems to understand what anyone else is saying.

In Genesis 11:1-7, we are told that people from chol ha’aretz/all the earth speak the same language and together decide to make a name for themselves by building a tower up to the sky. Commentators say that this chol ha’aretz means that it was literally all of humankind who were involved in this endeavor. If that was the case, who were they trying to impress by making a name for themselves?


The commentaries’ answer is that they wanted to challenge God. As we all know from countless episodes in Torah, God doesn’t like to be challenged, and when God is challenged it must be done in just the right way (think Abraham and Sodom).

The people were afraid that if they did not build the tower, they would be “scattered all over the world” (Genesis 11:4). The consequence of this challenge turned out to be exactly that, but much worse. They were not only scattered, but lost the gift of ease of communications.

I once attended a workshop that demonstrated how easy it is to misunderstand the meaning of a spoken word. The presenter said a sentence, highlighting a particular word, and then asked each person to write down what they heard when this word was spoken.

The word was “Israel.” The responses contained the entire spectrum (positive and negative) of the biblical, political, religious and spiritual meanings. It was fascinating. It reminded us that we cannot take for granted that what we say will be received and perceived in the way we intend.

The verse in which God states the intention to confound humanity’s speech concludes: “…asher lo yishma’u/so that they shall not understand one another’s speech” (Genesis 11:7). The root of the word used for understand is shin-mem-ayin — shema. Rashi writes that this root word is used here as “hearing” with one’s heart, as distinct from hearing with one’s ears.

Isn’t that what communication is all about? What we say and what we hear is determined not only by our ears and our intellect. It is also determined by our hearts, by our experiences, by our world view.

The key, as we move through this health crisis and challenging political season, is to remember that there is meaning under the surface of words, and that we should strive to shema/understand what is being heard and what we say in return.

Rabbah Arlene Berger is the rabbi of the Fauquier Jewish Congregation and a community chaplain.

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