Words, Promises And Protean Realities

While divine utterances are said to be the foundation of Creation, it was only when Adam became tasked with creating names for the animals in Eden that humanity had its first opportunity to wield the power of words, thereby codifying the measure of their appearance and behavior. (Folk singer Bob Dylan wrote a charming ditty on this theme which occasionally surfaces when I am sketching at the zoo.) But this entry is less about Adam and his animals than about our increasingly casual misuse of the power of words in our Age of Infoglut. In Mattot, this week’s Torah portion, we are reminded of the potence of our verbal expressions and their ability to alter our perceptions and the nature of our current reality.  An earlier post, on July 8, 2010 presented my interpretation of this parashah with the illustration that appears on the left-hand side of the spread. Today, you can see the facing image, titled ‘Properties And Promises’. Here are the leaders of the tribes of Reuben, Gad,and the half-tribe of Manasseh (son of Joseph), standing on the portions of land they requested from Moses after the war against Midian. Observing that these particular territories, though outside the boundaries of the Promised Land, would provide abundant supprt for their great numbers of livestock, they sheepishly added that their children would benefit from the security of the towns they would build there. Recalling the near-disaster of the meraglim (the ten scouts and their horror stories of Canaan), Moses expressed vehement concern that these tribes would influence the rest of the Israelites to settle elsewhere as well. Yet he granted their request under two conditions: these tribes must commit to serving as shock troops for the defense of Israel in their conquest of the Promised Land and must prioritize building towns for their families ahead of facilities for their flocks and herds. The object suspended above the middle figure, whose hand is raised in an oath, is a ner tamid (eternal light). A familiar presence in every synagogue, this lamp is never permitted to be extinguished for it symbolizes the eternal presence of G-d, Who hears our promises.

Perhaps, in the light of the current British tabloid scandal, Mr. Murdoch and his minions would do well to revisit  and contemplate this bit of Bible lore. As my beloved paternal grandmother once observed: “Once the words  are out of your mouth (or in print!), you don’t own them anymore.”

This excerpt is from my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009) which can be purchased directly from the publisher, http://www.pomegranate.com/a166.html or from Amazon,  amzn.to/gZSp5j where you will find several reviews.

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