How did our ancestors regard the spoken word? What does the Torah say about the word and its power as well as its possibilities?
Biblical writers regarded the Divine Word as a cosmic force reverberating throughout the created order. According to Psalms 33:6, the Word of God animates the cosmos: בִּדְבַר יְהוָה שָׁמַיִם נַעֲשׂוּ “By the Word of the LORD the heavens were made.” To the Hebraic (as well as the Semitic) imagination, words are powerful—it is the stuff reality is made of. In Biblical Hebrew, among its various nuances, דָּבַר(dabhar) connotes a “thing” (Exod. 35:1); or a “promise” (Deut. 15:6); and a “decree” (Jer. 51:12) or “affair” or “history” (1 Kgs. 14:12).  In each of these examples, the term connotes something substantive and real. Everything that exists in the world is viewed as a manifestation of the Word of God that animates it.
The intuitions of primal cultures never cease to fascinate and intrigue me. The spoken word was often used as a supernatural weapon; the curse of a soothsayer was believed to be powerful enough to invoke the forces of death itself. One of the most well known biblical stories found, the book of Numbers relates how King Balak of Moab, hires the mighty soothsayer Balaam to curse the approaching Israelite people (Num. 22:6). From a modern perspective, one could describe Balaam as a motivational speaker; he is skilled in the art of inflaming the masses. Anti-Semites in the Middle East perform television documentaries on how Jews use Muslim and Christian blood to make their Passover matzas (see Memri.org for hundreds of examples).
Despite our modernity, in many ways we fail to appreciate the impact that words have on our lives, as well as on the lives of others. As a result, the word in contemporary society tends to be devalued, yet their impact on peoples’ lives has not diminished to the least. There are many practical reasons for this phenomenon. Since the invention of the printing press, the world has become more literate than at any other time of recorded history. Along with the proliferation of literacy, the word has become increasingly more secularized due to advances made in human technology. The telegraph, telephone, television, radio, email, the Internet, and other forms of electronic digital media and telecommunication devices have inundated modern humans with a continuous stream of words—wherever they go—twenty-four hours a day.
Since words tend to be all the more diminished in light of the Internet, people will often rush through their written communications without giving much attention to what they are saying, or for that matter, how they are saying something. The imagination, when left unchecked, can often take two people or more to a unexpected places that create anger, resentment, not to mention—humiliation especially if the email has been sent to multiple receivers, many of whom the original writers do not even know. A reputation of a person can be destroyed with a single keystroke. With complete unanimity, an angry or spiteful posting can be effortlessly circulated for countless of other lurkers to read. Continue reading “Emailing as a Moral Challenge”