When words matter… or don’t.

On this eve of Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, it seems most appropriate to discuss the power of words.

Every year at this time, many Jews around the world, having done nothing “Jew-ish” in the last year, suddenly remember they’re Jewish, head to a synagogue they haven’t stepped into in, well, a year, and utter prayers asking for forgiveness. For many Jews, this is a deeply spiritual holy day where every action (and inaction) is conceived to create a close connection with God. For many more, like the ones I described to open this paragraph, this is the religious version of a thoughtless shortcut. I can hear it already – “some action is better than no action at all”. In theory, yes, but consider that pretending to care about something is worse than being honest and taking no action. Let me explain.

First of all, the prayers said and sung these days are all in Hebrew. The vast majority of those who attend these services and pray in Hebrew have absolutely no idea what the Hebrew words that they are saying, mean. How does it make sense to do something as significant as prayer in a language we don’t comprehend? To be fair, all of the prayer books that I have seen have English translations, and if someone prays using the English that they understand, then this argument is rendered completely invalid as it relates to them. However, my past observational experience strongly suggests that this is not the case for most people.

I speak and read Hebrew very well. I understand almost everything in those prayers, and there are passages whose content I absolutely do not agree with, most notably the Kol Nidre declaration, said tonight around the world to open the Yom Kippur service. This prayer says,

“All vows, and prohibitions, and oaths, and consecrations, and konams and konasi and any synonymous terms, that we may vow, or swear, or consecrate, or prohibit upon ourselves, from the previous Day of Atonement until this Day of Atonement and from this Day of Atonement until the Day of Atonement that will come for our benefit. Regarding all of them, we repudiate them. All of them are undone, abandoned, cancelled, null and void, not in force, and not in effect. Our vows are no longer vows, and our prohibitions are no longer prohibitions, and our oaths are no longer oaths.”

Since I understand what I am saying, and do not agree with the notion of declaring something null and void before it is even done, I can choose to not say it. This should be crucially important to anyone, like me, whose word matters to them. I want to be listened to as someone who says what he means and means what he says. I want people to know that when I promise something to them, I take that promise seriously. And to those who don’t care about the words that they speak, or don’t even care enough to make sure to understand what they are saying, I ask why even bother participating in such a ritual in the first place.

Lately, my daughter has been hitting me when she doesn’t get her way. In trying to teach her the consequences of her actions, I would tell her to “say sorry.” Then I realized that she doesn’t have any concept of what that means. Yes, she needs to start somewhere, and thankfully, “sorry” is a word that she will eventually understand (she is, after all, Canadian), but for now, when she says “sorry”, it means about as much as what many Jews will be saying tonight and until sundown tomorrow.

Come to think of it, how many times do you hear someone say they’re “sorry” in the course of a day without any remorse whatsoever? It’s a word that is thrown around without regard to what it actually means, presumably to sound good. (i.e. “Sorry to interrupt, but…” and then the person proceeds to interrupt anyway.) It is much like many people who pray. It looks good. It feels good. But it is largely inauthentic, especially when the person has no idea what they are actually saying.

If you have ever been to a Yom Kippur service, you may agree that there is more social chatter than actual praying. For many, it is the social place to be. It is the place to catch up with people you haven’t seen in a year and, sadly, to model new fashions and judge those worn by others. This is not a Jewish thing. It happens in many religions, but that doesn’t make it any more “right”. At synagogue, on Yom Kippur, I learned an English word I might never have otherwise come across: decorum. The Rabbi sure asked for it, often.

Until this year, I have attended synagogue out of respect for my family. I have always used my Yom Kippur experience at synagogue to reflect rather than to pray. Many years ago, during a conversation outside of the building I realized one important thing about people and religion. It is more important to be a good person than a good Christian, Catholic, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, whatever.

And that starts with actually caring about what we say, ensuring that it is an accurate reflection of what we mean, and making sure that every word that comes out of our mouths is honest and authentic.

With that, please accept my heartfelt wishes for a year beyond your wildest imagination, whether that year began last week, January 1st, or some other time entirely.

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