Parashat Devarim, Chapter 1, Verse 1
Words are like arrows
About twenty-five years ago, in an isolated Canadian First Nations community, I learned a
valuable lesson about words, and it guides me to this day.
During the early 1990s, I began working for an environmental study examining the effects of
pollutants on the northern Alberta river system, particularly on fish, birds and small animals.
My task was to travel to the hamlet of Fort Chipewyan — about 850 miles north of the
Montana border — to speak with First Nations elders and find out how the river system had
been affected by chemicals produced by the pulp and paper industry.
Were there more or less “songbirds” in the area? Pollution tends to send these sacred
creatures north in search of purer air. And how were the fish doing? There had been rumors
that many were deformed.
One crisp morning, I sat with elders to gather “traditional science”- that is, oral accounts of the
As I looked up from my notepad, I asked a question which I thought the elders would eagerly
embrace. “How has the environment affected the world around you?”
The Chief of one of the nations looked at me. “Why should we tell you? We have seen what
your culture has done to the birds, fish, muskrat and moose. Why should we share our words
when they may be used as weapons to cause further pain?”
I stared at him in disbelief.
“Don’t you see?” the Chief went on. “Words are more than breath. They are alive. So we ask
you: how will you use our words? To heal or to further destroy?”
From that moment on, I understood with sacred clarity that what comes out of our mouths is
indeed more than breath.
Words have life.
It is an important concept to consider this week, as we begin reading the fifth book of the
Torah, known as Deuteronomy or Devarim: “words.”
It’s also an important concept today, as we navigate a world where increasingly we are
flooded with words, many of them meaningless, from our television sets to our computers,
from our grocery lines to our gasoline pumps.
In a society flooded by texts, emails, and a never-ending assault of voices and hucksters, the
sanctity of words is diminishing.
But the Torah sees things differently.
It tells us that, “in the beginning,” God created the world with a series of utterances. “Let
there be light-and there was light.”
Whether or not we believe that text is historically accurate, it sends a powerful message
regarding the power of the word: that it is an essential component of original creation, and
that it shapes the fabric of our lives today.
The Torah tells us that our word must mean something. That when we make a promise — it
must be kept.
It reminds us that when we insult someone, or otherwise gossip, it cuts into the core of that
person like an arrow. The more words, the more arrows.
The Talmud teaches that gossip harms three people: The one who is gossiping, the one who is
listening to the gossip, and the one who is being gossiped about.
It adds that the tongue is so dangerous that it needs two barriers to keep it in place, one of
skin and one of bone.
So this week, as we begin walking with Moses through the final weeks of his life, Judaism’s
greatest teacher and prophet will remind us that words matter.
They affect every aspect of our lives. And as the elders of Fort Chipewyan reminded me that
day, when we project words into the world, they become “concretized.” They can either build
It compels us to be careful with words, whether they are communicated through live
conversations, or via texts, or email, or tweets.
When hateful words are uttered from one person or group against another, the speaker may
not walk away unscathed. For sometimes words, like flaming arrows, can ignite dry timber —
and the archer is not without blame.
Noted King Solomon, “Life and death are in the hands of the tongue.” (Proverbs 18:21)
And so as Moses begins his final volume, we are reminded at the outset of the power
of devarim—of words.
It is an important message for our time. We are surrounded by so many words that we have
learned to block out their sanctity.
Indeed, we cannot control what comes out of others’ mouths. But we can control our own.
Words are alive. Therefore let us use them with integrity, and demand the same of others.
As poet Elise Sobel wrote:
Cruel words like feathers fly
Cruel words reach far and wide
They leave the mouth a bitter rind
May all your words, my friend, be kind.
Shabbat Shalom, v’kol tuv
Rabbi Irwin Huberman