September 16, 2019

The Power of Words

When John woke up that Sunday morning and could neither move nor speak, he realized that something terrible had happened. Somehow during the night he had suffered a stroke. He struggled in a panic to get out of bed and succeeded merely in rolling off and landing in an awkward sprawl on the floor. The sound of his dead weight hitting the wood startled his wife from her sleep and straight into the waking nightmare that has persisted to this day.

Later that afternoon I arrived in the ICU at UCLA Hospital to see him. It was the eyes that got me the most. His body was propped up in the bed, and was barely moving. But his eyes were steadily roaming up and down, right and left, seeming to be moving in several directions at once – actually, staring in several directions would be more accurate.

He became so affected that he seemed like a caged animal, giving off an intense restlessness without making a sound. But still, it was the intensity of those eyes that was most chilling.

I sat with him that day and then nearly every day for the next two weeks as he slowly regained some limited mobility. I watched as his brain began to wind its way through the complex pathways of its inner space and one step at a time, piece by piece began to put its house back in order. Well, almost back in order; his speech has never fully recovered. Those first few days were filled with such intense sadness, such naked fear, such passionate pain and suffering – for John, for his wife Ann, for his two kids, for the rest of his family and friends – that it is difficult even for me to recall without a welling of tears. For John, the immense frustration of his tragic situation was nearly unbearable. Every time I was with him, he would try unsuccessfully to speak, then fall back in frustration and weep.

In the midst of his suffering, I was reminded by John during the days we spent together in the hospital of one of the most powerful lessons of the human condition: that perhaps the greatest gift that we have ever been given by God is the simple ability to communicate with another human being. Without that ability, without that window opening from our soul to another, we are trapped in a solitary confinement more terrible than “the hole” in the darkest prison in the world.

It was John who eventually told me that he experienced more terror at his inability to speak than from his inability to walk and move his hands and legs as he chose. It was John who confided that his greatest fear was that he would never be able to say, “I love you” to his wife, “I’m proud of you” to his children, “I need you” to his family. His silence was deafening, terrifying, debilitating, and when he realized he could not speak, all he could do was cry.

It is primarily through speech that we communicate our hopes and dreams, our longings and joys to those we love. Words are our lifeline to touch the souls of others. And that is why the name of this week’s Torah portion, which also gives its name to the entire fifth book of the Torah is so powerful.

Devarim, the name of both the portion and the book, means “words” in Hebrew. Eleh hadevarim asher diber Moshe: “These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel…” In a remarkable irony, Moses, who is introduced to us at the burning bush with the words “Oh God, I am not a man of words” (Exodus 4:10), is here expounding the entire Torah not only “to all Israel” but (according to the midrash) in the 70 languages of the rest of the world as well.

Think about the power of words this week and the precious gift that they truly are in your life. Your words can heal. Your words can inspire. Like Moses, your words can make a difference in the life of another, perhaps an entire people, perhaps the entire world.

Steven Carr Reuben, Ph.D., is senior rabbi of Kehillat Israel, the Reconstructionist congregation of Pacific Palisades.