this a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 7/22/17
As a child of the 70s, like many boys of my generation, I was both fascinated and obsessed with the Planet of the Apes. I am guessing you all have a sense of what I am talking about – the movie franchise about a planet where apes speak and have a culture and society, and humans are mute and treated like animals. In the early 70s when the movies were on TV I watched them – you’ll excuse the expression – religiously. In 1974, when it was decided there was going to be a weekly Planet of the Apes TV series, I was beyond ecstatic. When it was cancelled after just one season, I was inconsolable. I begged my father to let me stay up late one Saturday night to watch the Carol Burnett Show because Roddy McDowell, the star of the movies and my hero, was going to be on. There was a time in my life when it was Planet of the Apes pretty much 24/7. And yes, I’ve seen the new Planet of the Apes movies, although the newest one is still on my to do list.
Some of you may know that the entire Apes franchise was based on a novel published in French in 1963, called La Planete des Singes – Planet of the Monkeys, I think is the literal translation – written by Pierre Boulle. I read his Planet of the Apes novel in one night, straight through, with a flashlight under the covers so my parents would not know how late I stayed up.
When I was a little boy I was drawn to the story because of the space travel and adventure, but like all great science fiction the book deals with contemporary issues and themes, and at its core its one central question: what is it that makes us human? Is it the trappings of humanity? The clothes, the manners, the culture, the societal structures? Or is it something deeper, something perhaps even God given? Our intellect? Our consciences? Our creative ability? And the book explores these questions by taking humans out of the traditional trappings, and putting apes into them. So if a human is naked and running around in a jungle, and an ape is dressed in a suit and sitting in a cafe sipping coffee, which of them is actually ‘human’ and which is the ‘animal?’
One of the most provocative ways that the novel tries to explore this question is through the use of language, of speech. In the Planet of the Apes movies the most shocking moments, the most dramatic, are the moments where a character who is not supposed to be able to speak suddenly does. And that is because more than anything else we understand that speech separates us from animals. We have fundamental drives and needs, we must eat, we get angry, we have sexual drives, when we are pushed far enough we will even kill – and in all of those ways, we are indistinguishable from the animals. But the one thing we can do that animals cannot is use language to communicate complex ideas to one another. Language – our ability to use words – enables us to transmit scientific discoveries, to problem solve, to philosophize – to talk about God, or justice, or dignity. And as the Planet of the Apes seems to suggest – were we to lose our ability to speak, to communicate with one another through language, we would also lose our humanity.
Judaism has long had a sensitivity to the power and importance of words and language. It is not in my mind a coincidence that in the Creation story in the beginning of Genesis God brings the world into being by speaking a series of words. Each act of creation in that story is preceded by the phrase ויאמר קילוהים – And God said. And God said ‘let there be light.’ And God said ‘let the waters gather together.’ And God said ‘let us make man in our image.’ This is why we say in the siddur ברוך שאמר והיה העולם – blessed is the One Who spoke, and the world came into being. God’s revelation at Sinai is conveyed to Moses and the people through words – וידבר קלוהים את כל הדברים האלה לאמור – God spoke all of these words, saying – that is the introductory verse to the 10 Commandments, emphasizing speech – language – as the means of communication between God and Israel. And in fact in Hebrew – what are the 10 Commandments called in Hebrew? The Aseret HaDibrot, which is probably best translated as ‘the 10 utterances, the 10 words.’
And human speech in the Bible is supposed to echo God’s speech. It is supposed to be sacred, it is supposed to have real meaning and real power, it is supposed to convey truth. Harold Kushner points out that in the Torah a word is not merely a sound. It is actually something that is real, that has substance and power. There are many examples of this in the Torah. When Isaac mistakenly gives his blessing to Jacob instead of Esau, he cannot take it back – the words have been spoken, and they must stand. The covenants that are made in the Torah – between people, and between God and people – are verbal agreements, but they are eternally binding. This morning’s double Torah portion begins with a series laws that describe how vows worked in ancient Israelite culture. And it is clear that when a vow is made it cannot be broken, that the words that have been spoken have a true force that cannot be revoked once they have been uttered.
In our world today this might seem like a strange idea. We have grown accustomed to using words cheaply, and even worse we have become very accomplished at using words to twist the truth instead of to arrive at it. It is one of the great ironies of modern life that in what we call the ‘age of communication’ we are less and less capable of communicating with one another. We talk by one another, and not to one another. In a world of texts, and tweets, and emails, our sensitivity to the nuance of language, to the power of language, has been diminished.
There was a time, not so long ago, when this was not the case. When I meet with a family about a funeral, and they are telling me about their loved one who was a member of the generation that we now call the greatest, they will often say like: ‘they meant what they said, and they said what they meant.’ Or, ‘their word was their bond.’ Or, ‘if they said they were going to take care of it, it was as good as done.’
It was just a generation or two ago that words still retained their meaning and power, their sacred sense of being binding and true. That is something that we should not only remember – it is something we should strive to return to, in our own lives, in our communities, in our public discourse. What are the six words we say before we pray the amidah? Adonai sefati tiftach, u’fi yagid tefilatecha – God, open my lips, that my mouth might declare your praise. Before we pray, we ask God to help us make our language sacred. Perhaps we should keep the same idea in mind whenever we speak, to whomever we are speaking, and whatever it might be we are saying –