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"Fill Your Words With Radiance"

10/07/2021 02:33:55 PM

Oct7

Rabbi Steven Folberg

Some of the most beautiful and interesting Jewish commentaries on verses of Torah grow out of the fact that the meaning of certain Hebrew words has changed over time. For example, the Hebrew word Nefesh means "life, person, breath or individual" in the Torah, but by the time Rashi and the other greats are explaining the deeper meanings of the text in the middle ages, the word Nefesh has come to mean "soul." This opens the door to a lot of beautiful commentary.

A similar example of the evolution in the meaning of a biblical Hebrew word comes up in the Torah portion for this Shabbat, Noach, which covers the non-Sunday-school, adult, uncensored version of the Noah and the Flood story.

The word in question is tevah. In the Torah, two objects are referred to as a tevah. One is the Ark that Noah builds, a Bronze Age cruise ship that will save life on earth. In the other occurance of the word tevah, Moses' mother hides the infant in a basket that she has waterproofed with pitch. That woven tevah, too, like Noah's Ark, floats but, having neither a rudder nor a sail, cannot be steered. It goes with the flow, it follows the currents.

In later Hebrew, though, the word tevah (spelled exactly the same way in the Hebrew) comes to mean "word." (The Hebrew expression for "acronym" or "initials" is rashay tevot, i.e., "the heads of the words."

This provides all the ingredients for a gorgeous lesson from the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism. In the instructions for building the ark, God tells Noah, “put tzohar in the tevah.” Tzohar means “radiance” or “light,” and “tevah,” again, means “Ark.” In the simplest sense, God is reminding Noah that he needs to make sure that there is a skylight in the roof of the ark so that both family and animal cargo will be able to see!

Taking the word tevah in its later sense of "word," however, the Baal Shem Tov understands the verse to mean, "You shall instill radiance into your words," or, "fill your words with light."

Remember that the first thing God says in the entire Torah, and last week's portion, in fact, is "Let there be light!" Words can be a conduit, a vessel for light, enlightenment, truth, healing and kindness. But words can be equally pernicious and destructive, when they are infused with the darkness of cynicism, bigotry, falsehood, injustice and cruelty.

What would it mean for you, moment to moment, before you speak, to hold the intention of filling your words with light? I think that is something that each of us must grapple with, moment by moment, conversation by conversation, email by email, post by post on social media. But even asking the question has the potential to transform our appreciation for the great power within our words, and to help us to be more intentional and less reactive, more constructive and less destructive, in the way that we use them.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Steve Folberg

Sat, December 4 2021 30 Kislev 5782