I want to begin by asking a question: if tomorrow, you were bereft of the power of speech, save only one phrase, or even only one word--what would that phrase or word be?
I’m not talking about being struck dumb or having a stroke. You would have a choice--if the world was reoriented such that you could only say one thing, if you were to undergo a modified, enforceable vow of silence, what would you choose to say?
It’s a hard question to ask, and even harder to answer. Would it be a word of wisdom? Some aphorism to inspire those around you? Would it be a purely utilitarian phrase, a practical sentence? Would it be a favorite line from literature, or film, or a primal yalp? Would you declare your own name, as Groot does in Guardians of The Galaxy, or a nonsense word, as Hodor declares in Game of Thrones? Or, bereft of choices, would you choose to sit in silence?
So now let me ask a follow up question: whatever word or phrase you chose--how often do you say it now? How often do you say that specific phrase? If these are the most important words, the ones you cannot live without, the ones you MUST KEEP, how often do you say them?
Like any commodity, when we have a great deal of something, we tend to forget that thing’s real value, it’s real worth. We take for granted our ability to speak, to write, to share our thoughts through language. Of course there are other ways to express ourselves: body language, movement, art, music, mathematics. But for the most part, we say words. We say a lot of words. The best words, to quote a presidential candidate who likes to use his words in their most weaponized form. We use our words carelessly, thoughtlessly, not thinking about the impact they might have on others. Or, sometimes even worse, we overthink our words, trying to craft our speech so carefully so the other person can read between the lines. But perhaps, in our talking, we don’t really pay enough attention to what we’re saying, or how we’re speaking. Or how we’re listening.
Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav, the great Hasidic master, was very focused on one idea, that of hitbodedut, of clinging to God. For him, the best way to achieve this was talking to God, and he would encourage his followers to practice this every day.
He said: even when one cannot speak at all, or says only a single thing--it is also very good!!
He also said: even if a person can only say one thing, he should be resolute and say that thing over and over again, endlessly. And even if he spends many, many days saying nothing but this thing--that too is good! He should be strong and courageous, and continue to say that thing countless times until God takes pity on him and opens his mouth, enabling him to elaborate on his words.
The Rebbe also said: The spoken word is very powerful. Why, with a whisper it is possible to prevent a gun from firing. Understand this. (from Likutei Morhoran II #96)
So: how are we doing with our words? Are we treating our words as powerfully as they are? Do we understand their importance? Are we whispering to stop the weaponry around us? Are we repeating what must be said to elevate the world? Are we speaking strongly and courageously? Might we speak more appropriately if we knew we only had a handful of words to say, or perhaps only one?
For me the answer is yes. It is unquestionably yes. And because of that we need to remind ourselves of the power of our words. We have a presidential candidate who uses words as he uses people--as if they’re disposable. We have a child killed in our community whose family--already reeling from the tragedy of her death--is dealing with people speaking around and about them--even setting up fake charity accounts using their names. And we all know too many people and too many circumstances where words spoken have done far, far more harm than good. There’s a reason the 1980s band Depeche Mode wrote that words can only do harm.
But they can do so much more than that when we let them. The word of appreciation, the word of apology, the word of gratitude or praise or affection can change a person’s whole experience, even reorient their world. And, if we believe Reb Nachman, perhaps those words can even bring us closer to God. May it be so: May we learn to open our mouths that we may only speak the words most important to us, the words that bring us to holiness.
And in case you were wondering: if I were reduced to only a handful of words, I would choose nothing more dramatic or inspiring except the words I try to speak to those around me in different ways as much as possible. I would choose I love you. May this be our blessing. Amen.