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