During one particularly delightful evening in a friend’s sukkah this year, a 10-year-old boy began to tell me about a special project at his school, the Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School. The project is called PATTAN, for Prevent all Teasing, Taunting and Name-calling. Sensing my keen interest, the boy brought to the table the graphic image that would be used in the educational materials for the project. In the drawing, two white polar bears stood happily, while one, with an image of a broken heart inside, exploded from within. The caption on the drawing read, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can REALLY hurt me.”
How might the subject of hurtful words be related to the story of Noah’s ark, to which we return this Shabbat? The connection lies in a famous, ingenuous pun offered by none other than the Ba’al Shem Tov.
The Ba’al Shem Tov looked deeply into the verse, “Make an opening/window (tsohar) for the teivah (which means both ‘ark’ and ‘word’).” (Genesis 6:16) While the plain meaning of the text is clearly about the building of the ark, the Besht (Ba’al Shem Tov) suggests that the text hints at the great power of the sacred word.
The rebbe, like us, lived in a chaotic and dangerous time. He wanted to relate the story of Noah’s ark directly to the lives of his people, who might often feel they were drowning in the midst of perilous waters, unsure of what could protect them from harm. For Noah and his family, protection came in the form of an ark to carry them through the storm. For the rebbe’s people and for us, protection can come only from inside the teivah, the sacred words of prayer or Torah study.
Another version of the same teaching offers a breathtaking image of the power of sacred words to transform lives. “The Ba’al Shem Tov taught, ‘Make an opening/window for the teivah,’ to make a window of the word of Torah and prayer, through which you can see to the ends of the earth,” writes Arthur Green in “Your Word is Fire.”
Rebbe Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, following the Ba’al Shem Tov, also sees the ark as a metaphor for sacred words of prayer and of Torah, that which can contain and shelter us in turbulent times. But he broadens the teaching considerably. He delves into the verse, “Make it an ark with kinim, i.e. compartments (or, in other contexts, a nest)” (Genesis 6:14), and suggests that this verse refers to a dwelling place. Seen in this way, the verse means, “Through your words, cause the Blessed Creator to dwell in this world.”
In this stunning teaching, Levi Yitzhak suggests that any speech — not only spoken words of Torah or of prayer — may contain such holiness that they can give life in the midst of terrifying times, serving as an ark in the midst of the deluge. We can choose to make any of our words holy and life-giving, or hurtful and destructive.
What makes for holy speech? Our choice of words and tone can make the difference between a caring offer of support and a harsh, cutting retort. Our awareness of the tremendous power of words to help or to hurt can lead us to soften a complaint, or choose not to say a word of sarcasm, blame or criticism. Simply being mindful of the personal needs our speech may serve can be transformative. Imagine if you stopped before you spoke and asked, “Why do I need to say this right now? Is it more likely to help or to hurt?” This five-second pause would be enough to filter out many of the thoughtless comments for which I repent every Yom Kippur.
Finally, intention can make all the difference. I can think of times when a loved one said something “stupid,” but with such loving feeling that the words did not matter. And I can think of words that were textbook-perfect but heartless, and so conveyed coldness rather than care.
I hope that little boy will have great success with his anti-taunting campaign. And when the school program is completed, perhaps the kids can give a lesson to the rest of us.