30 November 2016
Parashat Toldot contains the famous story of the twins Jacob and Esau, and how Jacob, with his mother’s help, tricks their father Isaac into giving him the blessing reserved for the first-born. The juxtaposition of the two brothers, one “a skillful hunter;” the other a “mild man,” is striking — but not as significant as the portion’s lesson on the power of words.
Once Isaac mistakenly blesses his younger son, we wonder why he can’t just “take back” his words. I came across a story of a man, who, shortly before Yom Kippur, consults the rabbi on how to atone for spreading gossip about his neighbor. The rabbi instructs him to take a bag of feathers and place one on each doorstep in the village. Mission completed, he comes back to the rabbi for further instruction and is then told to retrieve the feathers. He solemnly returns to report that the wind had blown the feathers all over the village and he could not collect them. The rabbi said, “Yes, that is the nature of our words. Once we have spoken them, we cannot take them back.”
Words have enormous power to deceive, harm, incite, even kill. From graffiti threats last week in Israel against the leaders of the Reform movement to swastikas drawn in local high schools, these types of incidents are a chilling reminder of dangerous incitement and the power of evil and hateful words, which must be condemned by all of us. In Ecclesiastes we read, “Let thy words be few”. With so much being written these days about dangerous words and fake news, let our words be both few and true.