Rabbi Dan Ornstein: Words

Feb 23, 2016

Emily Dickinson included the following poem in a letter she wrote:

A word is dead

When it is said

Some say.

I say it just

Begins to live

That day.

This poetic gem does not have a prominent place in the pantheon of popular poetry.  It is overshadowed by far more popular, far less thoughtful, poems and songs about words, such as Words, by the popular band, the Bee Gees, who sang:

You think that I don’t even mean

A single word I say.

It’s only words

And words are all I have

To take your heart away.

Covers of this song were made multiple times.  It is slightly ironic that Words, a song sung by a lover to his beloved about speech as a poor substitute for trust, remains on the tips of our tongues, while Dickinson’s poem about the life giving power of every word remains mostly unknown.  The fates of both poems make sense.  The Bee Gees were pop singers who knew how to mass market the simple and the simplistic.  Dickinson was a recluse whose posthumously published poetry, though some of the world’s finest, remains hard to understand. 

Yet the differing fates of these two poems also reflect a profound cultural bias.  That tiniest bit of genetic material encoding our endless capacity to communicate in words is what draws the meaningful distinction between us and other animals. So, we tip our hats to the idea that a word takes on its own life at the moment of human utterance, whether for good or for evil, but we often don’t take that idea seriously.  Asked to choose between carefully offering each of our words as a living, meaningful entity, and carelessly tossing words onto the garbage heap of human mindlessness, we often emphasize the latter.

I recently re-learned Emily Dickinson’s lesson about the life that each word possesses once we speak it.  Like many clergy, I sometimes find myself despairing of the value of writing and delivering sermons.   Looking out at my tired congregants during a Sabbath worship service, I have wondered, “Who is really affected by what I say?  Are we not actually engaged in a conspiracy of deceitful formalities, in which the rabbi is expected to deliver some inspiring religious lesson while the Jews in the pews use sermon time as a chance to take a nap?”  This despair feeds my greater fear that all of my writing endeavors are negligible as long as I am unsuccessful at publishing my work widely.

On a recent Sabbath, I talked about the Syrian refugee crisis, American immigration politics, and the historical experience of Jews as refugees that informs us morally and religiously around this issue.  A long, spirited discussion followed the sermon, then we concluded our prayer service.  I appreciated the feedback the sermon generated, but I thought little else of it once it was over.  My words were, after all, only words.

Within a month of the sermon, a congregant who had been present for the discussion decided to make my words live.  After talking with others that morning at our Sabbath reception, she brought together a group of volunteers to speak with activists in Albany’s refugee assistance community.  She formed a working group dedicated to resettling four new families, political refugees from Afghanistan.  Under their leadership, our entire congregation generously opened its heart to these families, who are settling in their new lives here.

Other than donating some pillows, I had nothing to do with the logistics and leadership of this holy work.  My congregants’ hands did it all.  Yet I am still struck by how it may not have come to life, had the words of my mouth not brought the idea to life.  No word said is ever dead or ever just a word.  We, the midwives of our words, have so much new life begging us to help it be born.

Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, New York.

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