Imagine a World with Less Words? Word #46

WORD: A Word a Week from the World’s Best Seller. Follow the Annual Torah Re-Run Series with Amichai Lau-Lavie’s Newest Year-Long Blog. To subscribe via email click here. To listen to the audio version click here.






I like to write. It helps me process thoughts; refine abstract concepts that sometimes, though not always, become clearer, word-by-word. At times, muses inspire and sentences form like dew drops on petals and patterns emerge and facts feel like art.


Most recently writing has become a bit of a challenge – with a lot of writing tasks that I’ve taken on – chosen or required by school, work, and life.

Academic writing is its own beast: just the right balance of tone and opinion. In the past month I’ve written over 10 extensive papers required for my graduate-rabbinical school studies. Writing a 10-20 page footnoted masterpiece for one set of eyes is a fascinating and at times frustrating challenge.


Then there’s blogs: this weekly one, which is a pleasure, and the PREPENT blog I’m in the middle of, with 26 daily posts to go that help me get ready for the year ahead. And then the writing of the High Holidays materials – preparing sermons and classes and promotional materials, and so on.

Oh, and emails, txts, small talk in transit. Waiting, on back burner, are the books and scripts I long to write.

Maybe just a bit too much? Perhaps, but hopefully not yet too much to handle, Although I admit that some days, like today, I long for days in which no writing tasks are anywhere in sight. (Biking has been helpful – though I write in my head sometimes, my body is busy balancing gravity, not grammar.)

Today I thought: has all this word exchange between us gone too far? It’s very likely that our literacy-heavy culture has gotten us sharing more words with each other than any previous generation, and I wonder how our brains are handling the influx. What’s the psychic price?

Is there some limit to how many written/read words a person can handle daily with a toll on soul when limits are reached? Would we live our lives with more calm and attention to detail if we were not bombarded by words, just like this one, from the moment we open our eyes every day?


Imagine a world where the written word is a rare commodity: where each word is sacrosanct. Interesting wish for the new year…


One of my favorite books is ‘ The Alphabet Vs. the Goddess.‘ Written by the late physicist and artist Leonard Shlain, it is a breathtaking tour through human history, examining what each civilization gained and lost with the advance of literacy. Cultures, Just like each of us growing up, lost innocence, magic and contact with nature as language took over, with tools of logic and order and solid structures, a-z. Shlain proves how words replaced images in our sacred systems as patriarchal hierarchy replaced the matriarchal culture and the letter of the law dominated simpler and perhaps more peaceful ways of life.

This week’s Torah Text, Ki Tavo, describes exactly this historical transition. Moses prepares the people to cross over into Canaan and instructs them to build monuments from rocks and ‘write upon them the words of the Torah.’ Dvarim 27


The Torah doesn’t specify which words are to be written, or how many.

But the written rocks presumably serve as art installation or giant billboard on the borders to the land. Their purpose is not fully explained but we can only imagine that they are the first signs of a culture rooted in the alphabet of logic and the word as a gesture of divine command: inscribed on our doorposts, our arms, hearts and minds.


After writing this I’ll shut off my screen, and head out biking and not stop to check emails and read or respond even once. With all the love of the words that connect us so wisely, it’s also our duty to know when to stop.


(And on the topic of biking and writing: If you’ve enjoyed reading WORD this past year, even an episode or two, I want to invite you to honor the writing by supporting my biking: In just ten days I’ll be doing the HAZON bike ride – 60 miles to support environmental education and a better world. I’ve pledged to raise $4,000 and I’m half way there! Any gift will mean a lot and is tax free. Click here . Thank you!)



Shabbat Shalom!




Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Spiritual Leader of Lab/Shul and Founder and Executive Director of Storahtelling, Inc. creating sustainable solutions for life-long Jewish Learning since 1999.,

Compassion for Killers? Word #41.

WORD: A Word a Week from the World’s Best Seller. Follow the Annual Torah Re-Run Series with Amichai Lau-Lavie’s Newest Year-Long Blog. To subscribe via email click here. To listen to the audio version click here.




George killed Treyvon. But was it murder?  The court said no, a lot of angry people think otherwise.
Beyond the racial aspects of this case and the rage that’s filing up your facebook page and local public squares, what’s at stake here is what counts or not as murder, or manslaughter or ‘plain killing’. Are the consequences different? Does it matter to those left behind?  Does it matter to the one who did the deed? blood is blood. How do such killers and/or murderers go on facing daily life?
Its a philosophical question but this week it came closer to home.
Two toddlers were forgotten by fathers in parked cars this past week in Israel, mid heat, and died.
Are those parents murderers? How do they go on? One of them is a friend of a friend. It’s shocking.
This nightmare is not just an Israeli problem and the debate about it grows each year. Two children were found dead in parked cars this past month in Virgina and Maryland, added to the terrible toll of 17 kids who died of hypothermia in the USA since Jan. 2013. And the summer isn’t over yet. Official stats  point at an average of 37 fatalities of children left alone in cars per year since 1998.
These are terrible tragedies, and I can’t begin to imagine the grief, rage, shame and remorse that have disrupted these families.  A glimpse of that here: “It was an inexplicable, inexcusable mistake, but was it a crime? That was the question for a judge to decide.”The Washington Post publisehd . this chilling piece in 2009
But I can imagine the context, horrible as it is, and have compassion, as well as pity, for these fathers and mothers whose lives and families, in so many ways, were ruined not because of malice but because of one wrong move. In the eyes of many, and often in their own eyes – they are guilty of the worse kind of murder.
This past wknd I took all three kids to the park, all of them on their wheels: two bikes and scooter. We crossed the street, all holding hands, when C. our youngest, got stuck with her scooter, and panicked, and her brother ran ahead, and there I was in the middle of the road, light changing, cars honking, two kids with me and one ahead, all now screaming, and one wrong hasty move could have been be a mess — thankfully I was alert and calm and not on phone or distracted or too tired, and we caught up and crossed the road and had fun in the park.
I think I understand distraction, and exhaustion, and competing obligations, enough to be terrified of any such horrendous judgement and enough to judge the parents who messed up with a bit more  kindness. Even though it’s still a mystery to me.
Are those parents murderers? Most courts find them negligent, they’ve suffered enough.
 How is remorse possible here? forgiveness? Where does such a parent go?
In this week’s Torah text, Va’Etchanan, Moses pleads to enter Canaan but the access is, again, denied. One moment of violence has doomed his entry. he goes on to deliver his final speech to the people, describing what awaits for them across the river. One of the features of the land are the cities of refuge, safe places where those who murdered, under special circumstances, may flee and be safe from revenge or judgment.
“…the murderer might flee there; the one who murdered a neighbour unawares, and did not hate him in the past…”
We don’t have cities of refuge today, not even Russian airports give shelter for long, let along an actual location where a killer can cool and get a second chance. Prisons? Rehab Centers? 

My heart goes out to all those grieving, every one a victim of the human ability to take a life, with intention or not. I don’t know what will happen with the Zimmerman case, or how to help parents be more conscious of their children, but I pray that we are all able to be more compassionate and helpful should such trajedies come closer to our shore. 

This week, now that Tisha B’av is behind us, begins the slow ascent towards a new year, bringing with it the process of self reflection, forgiveness and commitment to a better life. We may not have geographical cities of refuge, but at least we have them in the land of time. 

Shabbat Shalom.



Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Founder and Executive Director of Storahtelling, Inc. creating sustainable solutions for life-long Jewish Learning since 1999.

Word to the Wise: Say Less. Word #40.

WORD: A Word a Week from the World’s Best Seller. Follow the Annual Torah Re-Run Series with Amichai Lau-Lavie’s Newest Year-Long Blog. To subscribe via email click here. To listen to the audio version click here.




How many words you read a day? how many words you speak, and hear? how many truly penetrate and reach the core to make a difference in a life?
Thousands, daily, maybe more. Instructions, descriptions, greetings, gossip, shared dreams, occasional pearls of poetry, crude comments, status updates, curt courtesies, white lies, seductions.
We are perhaps the most word- inundated generation in human history.  What’s the price of this verbose inflation? What place of honor do we give the single, simple, spoken word?
I realize the irony of writing this in a blog named ‘word’. I try, as well, to minimize, and focus.
At breakfast in an Upper West Side diner yesterday I catch up with my friend G., an editor of an online news magazine, who keeps scanning his smartphone for urgent txts and laments the state of the indust
ry: ‘It’s not about the content anymore or about nuance – it’s just about what catches people eye and drives them to the site to boost the numbers.’
A talented writer, he yearns to pause and take the time to write, with care, a much awaited novel.
Later that day I lunch with JTS Chancellor Arnie Eisen, in the seminary’s courtyard. We talk about curriculum for rabbinical studies and he tells me of a recent study that shows how most universities are shrinking their humanities departments, favored less than computer science and more practical skills. ‘Harvard, Stanford, Yale’ – he shakes his head – ‘history departments are closing down not to mention literature and philosophy. It’s all about the bottom line, not the soul, not poetry. What can we do to coax students back into the humanities – into what it takes to be fully alive?’
Good to be back in  conversation. Big ideas and questions, old friends, good teachers. Welcome back to NYC.
Got back  on Sunday, pumped a bike (thanks sally) and biked up Riverside Drive Tuesday morning, back to JTS for  3 summer courses, back to back – Jews and Popular Culture in Antiquity, Queer Midrash, and a course with Elie Holzer about dialogue as an educational approach – to the art of life. That’s not the academic description, but I think that is the point of this course, and perhaps the point of all learning: In the ideal learning environment we don’t  learn to (just) gain facts and make connections. We learn to be in dialogue with other – and also to grow within our selves – emotionally, morally, spiritually, and become better beings.  It is not about the bottom line – it’s about the process. One word at a time.
And also: It isn’t just the words that are shared – but how and why we do so. That’s what makes a difference from data to depth.
The non-verbal matters just as much if not more than the text. Words are as good as the intentions with which they are created.
This may seem obvious to anybody who watched more than one TED talk or bat mitzvah speech, but when it comes to the study of sacred stories –  Bible, or Talmud – in fairly traditional study or ritual set
tings, this a big shift in perspective and in approach: the role of the words is different, and the goal of learning is not about accumulating details – it’s about being better at being human.
That’s what Eisen was talking about at lunch, and what my friend G. was lamenting: we’re drowning in meaningless words and something in our lives goes missing. How do we refocus? How do we write and read less so we can gain more, and how can learning not be about training skilled workers to do more doing but to rather pause and be more being?
That’s was Moses tries to do this week, as the fifth and last book opens, with the title, simply, ‘words’.
D’varim is that tricky Hebrew words that means both ‘words’ and ‘objects’. Words are things – a solid mass that melts reality like smoke or water.
Moses, the man whose words did not come easy, delivers his ultimate sermon, and the word ‘diber’ – ‘spoke’ appears over a dozen times in this portion alone. Moses recaps the journey to the people who’ve been on it, as we get to listen in and learn the lessons. He  keeps talking about conversations – the ones he’s had with th
em, and the ones they’ve had with God.
And perhaps that’s the most important lesson: Moses is reminding us how to pay attention to the fragile force of words and the vital role of attentive conversation.
Some words are spoken at you. Others are shared with you. Its a small and giant difference.
Moses  learned this the hard way and became the ultimate role model: He learns to speak with the Divine, face to face, each word black fire on white fire, partners in a careful conversation about what it’s all about.
I want to be more in the type of conversation with the world that is about speaking with others – not at them. As a teacher, co-worker, learner, father, lover, friend. To pay more careful attention to what words I say, and how, and why, and how to really listen when others share theirs.
And maybe that’s why I’m here at JTS. I’m learning how to be a rabbi, like Moses, the first of them all, or in other words, how to use words, wisely, and how to really learn, and how to really listen. One word at a time.
Shabbat Shalom


Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Founder and Executive Director of Storahtelling, Inc. creating sustainable solutions for life-long Jewish Learning since 1999.