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5777 Kol Nidre What Are Words Worth?

Our imagery for these days of repentance conjures up a dichotomy: On the one hand, the Creator of the universe, powerful and perfect, and, on the other hand us, weak, sinning and full of error. The Creator judges; we beg forgiveness. But we may be in a better position to do so than you thought. Let’s look at a favorite piyut, liturgical poem in the High Holiday ritual, the one called “Ki Anu Amecha.”

The first time it appears in the Yom Kippur prayers, is coming up in a few minutes, on page 460. It serves as an introduction to the vidui, the confessional, which you know very well: “Ashamnu, Bagadnu..etc.” It’s right before that. It dates from early medieval times, expanding on a Midrash on a well-known verse from the Song of Songs, “Ani l’dodi, v’dodi li” I am my beloved and my beloved is mine.

First, I like the tune, I think it swings, and it’s easy to harmonize to. And, to me, it speaks to the covenant between the divine and the human. “Anu Amecha” We are your people, “v’Attah Eloheinu” and You are our Gd. In one metaphor after another, we are yours and you are ours. So many ways to express the relationship, beyond Avinu, Parent, and Malkenu, King or Ruler. Along with “True Judge,” King, or Melech, Malkenu, is our most prevalent name for Gd in this season. But Right off the bat, Ki Anu Amecha is telling us that there is no king without a kingdom; You can’t be a ruler or a sovereign without a people to govern.

Without us as subjects, it’s kind of like a scene I remember from the old TV show with Jackie Gleason, The Honeymooners, where Jackie Gleason, Ralph Kramden, says to Audrey Meadows, Alice, “Here in this house, Alice, I’m the king.  That’s right, I’m the king, and you’re nothing.  You got that?  I’m the king and you’re nothing!” and Alice looks him coolly in the eye and says, “Big Deal, you’re the king of nothing.’” In other words, Gd may be the most powerful force in the universe, and that force is good, but without us, Gd is unemployed.

And that’s what it says in the Bible. Jewish Studies teacher Gary Shapiro cites the prophet Isaiah saying [43:10-12], “You are my witnesses…and I am Gd.” The rabbis of the Midrash go so far as to say that this means, “When you are my witnesses, I am Gd, but if you are not my witnesses, then, so to speak, I am not Gd.

Now it’s true, the poem doesn’t exactly cast us and Gd as equals. We are your servants, You are our Lord; We are your sheep and you are our shepherd. Yet it makes the point that Gd has certain obligations to us as well as the other way around.  Some of the couplets actually do show the relationship as almost balanced. All show the relationship as symbiotic: We are your inheritance and You are our fate. We are your beloved and You are our lover. That one alludes directly to the verse in the Song of Songs on which Ki Anu Amecha is based.

But when we get to the end of the part we sing, the last couplet, it’s a bit of a mystery. “Anu ma’amirecha, v’Attah ma’amireinu.” What exactly it means is a little dicey. The Hebrew root of the word is Aleph, Mem, Resh: Amar. In basic Hebrew, the root Amar means {ask cong.} “said.” It’s the same root as in “VaYomer HaShem el Moshe Leimor,” “and Gd said to Moses, saying,” in that redundant way that the Lord hath. Both “VaYomer” and “Leimor” have that same root. But if you’re really up on your Hebrew, you’ll recognize that the words “ma’amirecha” and “ma’amireinu” are in what’s called the Hiphil, or causative form of the verb. And in that form, it appears exactly once in the entire Bible. It’s what they call hapax legomenon . Or as we used to call it in rabbinical school, it’s a “really hard word.” Actually, it occurs twice, in two verses, but they’re right next to each other, so it’s the same context, it’s really the same place. Since ma’amir only appears in one place in the entire Bible like this, its meaning can’t be completely determined.  It showed up in Parshat Ki Tavo, about two weeks ago. 

Deuteronomy 26:17-18.

“You have affirmed this day that the Lord is your Gd, that you will walk in His ways, that you will observe His laws and commandments and rules, and that you will obey Him. And the Lord has affirmed this day that you are, as He promised you, His treasured people who shall observe all His commandments.”

Got that? Our part of the deal is to carry out Gd’s word. But it isn’t framed as a condition. Not quite, not here at least. It’s just how it is: we’re Gd’s treasure and we’re going to carry out Gd’s word.

So here the mystery word is translated as “affirmed.” That’s the 1964 JPS translation, the one we read every Shabbat and holiday. But there are lots of translations. In other works, it’s translated as “declared allegiance to,” “proclaimed,” “chosen,” “recognized,” the commentator Malbim says “betrothed,” and you’ll understand why in a moment. And those are just a few of the Jewish attempts to get at the meaning. King James says, “avouched,” and other Christian translations read, “In response you have agreed” There’s no shortage of speculation here. There’s an old Italian saying: “All translators are traitors.” But each one is trying to get at a basic question, that’s reflected in the poem: What is the nature of the bond between humans and Gd? And how does this form of the word “to say” clarify this?

Words describe what is. Many philosophers and philologists focus on this as the function of language. Then they ask, is a statement true? Does it match the facts? How do I test it? What’s the evidence?

But there’s more to language than that. Philosopher of language Ludwig Wittgenstein points out that we use language to classify, to sort the world into comprehensible distinct parts. So it’s important to get the words right. Mark Twain once said that the difference between the right word and the almost right word is like the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug. The choice of word can give away an opinion. We call someone we like who is loyal to the country patriotic. Someone we don’t like is jingoistic.  The same person could be a migrant or a refugee, depending on your point of view.

We also use language to build relationships. What we say is not as important as the fact that we are talking and if it is real communication, we’re listening too. We demonstrate caring through attentiveness to another’s words.

The Torah demonstrates the nature and power of language. At the time the Bible was put down on parchment, the transition was being made from an oral culture to a literate one. There was special significance attached to both the spoken and written word.

You can see it at the very beginning of the Torah. As we talked about on the second day of Rosh haShanah, we don’t have a standard mythology. By us, Gd spoke and the world came into being. Gd said “Let there be”…and there was. Words can create.

Well, Gd’s words can create. The British philosopher of language John Langshaw Austin points out the human version of creating by words. When the bailiff says, “The court is now in session,” he’s not describing something; he’s doing something. “I now pronounce you husband and wife,” creates a marriage. Or the way we do it, traditionally, is when the groom says to the bride, “Harey att mekudeshet li, Behold you are consecrated to me by this ring according to the laws of Moses and Israel” and she accepts. That’s not stating a fact, it’s creating a fact.

What else can we make with just words? The most basic thing is a promise. It creates an obligation. Sometimes it’s one-way: “I commit myself to do something for you.” Sometimes it’s mutual. Some commitments are specific, “I’ll pay you back a hundred dollars by Tuesday.” Some are less specific, “I promise to take care of you no matter what.”

And when the promise is two-way—one person pledges certain obligations, and so does the other—that’s called a covenant. A deal. A two-way street.  A covenant by any name comes into existence through words, and continues when we stand by those words.

And that, says Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, commenting on Deuteronomy, is what the verse with the odd form of “to say,” ma’amir, means: “Today, by an act of speech, you have made Gd your Gd, and Gd has made you Gd’s people.”  And now it’s beginning to sound like the poem in the machzor you’re holding.

The British journalist W.N. Ewer long ago commented on this. You’ve heard this commentary: “How odd / Of Gd / To choose / The Jews.” The best response, and there are a few, is: “Not quite /So odd / The Jews / Chose Gd.”

This idea of our relationship with Gd being such a two-way street really is unique to Judaism. We may have been the major influence on Christianity, but they didn’t so much get this. When Christian theologians use the word covenant, it’s mostly unilateral. There are no conversations between Gd and humans in the New Testament, or the Quran, for that matter. Nothing like the discussions Gd has with Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Hosea, Jeremiah, Jonah, Habakkuk, or Job. “Christianity,” to quote Rabbi Sacks again, “is a religion of salvation; Islam is a religion of submission. Judaism is a religion of dialogue.”

So with all this under our belt, what could the line in the poem mean? “Anu ma’amirecha, v’Attah ma’amireinu.” By these words, we re-create the covenant at Sinai. “We caused you to speak to us, and you caused us to speak to You.” The translation in our machzor, which might seem far-fetched at first if you’re just looking at the root AMaR, has nailed it. “We are your chosen ones and you are our Chosen One.”

Chutzpah? Well, we’re known for that. But I think it’s also that sometimes it is as hard to believe in ourselves as to believe in Gd. Gary Shapiro, whose Facebook comments a couple of weeks ago got me thinking, says, “Faith in Gd’s divine greatness requires faith in our own, human greatness…in our genuine power to recognize and proclaim Gd as sovereign and supreme…” I think what he is saying is that we can’t lose sight of our potential, to change and grow and act. Too many of the slights on the list of Al Khets we’re atoning for come from not realizing how much our words matter. Today we ponder how we can better use our words and our actions in the service of Gd’s Word.

 What a Gd. And what a people No wonder so many people talk in shul. But the trick to using words is to develop the relationship we have with Gd. We remind Gd of it. Before we confess, in first person plural, as a community responsible for one another, we remind Gd of the reciprocity of our relationship. If we can feel that it’s real, in the face of the confessionals, of the judgments, of the gates closing and our fate being sealed, there’s not so much to fear on this day of judgement. 


Gamar Khatimah Tovah

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