The Power of Words
Ever since I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by words and their power.
When I was in primary school, I remember learning how the first letters and words were created and being blown away by the simplicity and effectiveness of hieroglyphics. I was amazed at the way pictures and symbols were carved together to elicit meaning and pass on important messages.
When I learnt the Parsha for my Bar Mitzvah, I was amazed at the history and significance of the words I sung. These same words had been read every year for countless generations, passing on an inimitable and timeless tradition. Each word was carefully chosen, each sentence conveying unmistakable meaning and weaving together with other parts of the Torah. Reciting my Parsha in Shul on my Bar Mitzvah made me feel like I was singing the songs of our collective Jewish memory; each melodic word and note carrying with it a story. I was fascinated by the ingenuity of such a creation and finally understood its inherent value to the Jewish people. As the ‘People of the Book’, scripture and writings have been at the core of what has sustained the Jewish people for over 3000 years. The words helped me connect to something greater.
When I was in Year 10, I studied for six weeks at Ulpan Akiva in Netanya, gaining a stronger appreciation for the beauty of the Hebrew language. Building on the foundations of biblical Hebrew, Eliezer Ben Yehuda had developed a simple masterpiece. The structure of the language seemed so logical and effective that it made learning it a joy. The ability to converse with a different group of people and feel at home just by understanding the language helped me connect with the Jewish nation more than I ever had before.
When I studied history in VCE, I learnt how to be succinct. I was rigorously trained to use as few words as possible to make a point clearly and effectively. With word-limits closely monitored, I noticed that words must carry purpose. With precious few words at my disposal to impress an examiner, I had to make each sentence not only carry meaning, but convey an understanding of a different era in my own words. The words I was reading from Revolutionary leaders such as Lenin and Trotsky talked about another people from another time – nevertheless, these were words that shaped the course of history, transcended eras and sustained generations. Lenin’s revolutionary demands for “Peace, Land, Bread” were not just words in isolation – rather they epitomised in their simplicity the demands of the masses. I had to understand when historical bias was being employed and when the victors of war had used their own words to describe an event. I became wary of words and their power.
When I was in my first year of university, I learnt a new language: the language of law. The evidential burden to prove a point using sound legal and precedential principles was drummed into me. When making an argument, it became clear that you must always have something to back it up. The concept of ‘truth’ became muddled, with the understanding that cases are won and lost not necessarily on the weight of evidence, but on the way the case is conveyed. For me, the fine line between innocent and guilty grew thinner upon realising that the line was really just a careful combination of words that came from a Barrister’s mouth. Skilful wordsmiths could prosper in the realm of law merely by convincingly articulating their case. My suspicion of words and their power grew.
When I was a madrich in a youth movement, I was exposed to the language of leadership and how persuasive our words could be. Every conversation with a chanich (student) could have an immense impact on their life. Every turn of phrase could shape the way they view the world. Each lesson conveyed contributed greatly to our shared conversation of what makes us who we are. The notion of ‘hanging off every word’ took on a new meaning. I began to understand that words are simply facades if they are not backed up by meaningful actions.
When I worked as an integration aide helping a young boy with Autism integrate into a Grade 1 classroom, I began to understand that sometimes our words carry different meanings for different people. Social cues or greetings, which seemed so rudimentary, were like a foreign language to the student. After rehearsing together for hours on end and helping the student become comfortable delivering simple greetings to his peers in social situations, I noticed that these words provided him with the key to unlock the door to the world around him. He was able to shed the cloak of isolation simply by connecting with his peers, expressing his feelings and entering the world of conversation.
Throughout the course of this journey, I have come to understand that words are more than just tools to get what we want or need. Each word we send out into the world provides a message about who we are, what we believe and where we want to go. They are our swords and our shields. When used effectively, they can dramatically shape people’s perceptions of the world and provide a mechanism for change. Unfortunately today, it appears the significance we give to our words has greatly diminished.
In an age where information must be condensed into 140 characters, where social media has redefined the way we interact with each other, where politicians are judged on five-second sound bytes, the tools with which we convey and receive information have drastically changed. In this information age, where content is so readily available at our fingertips, it is our attention spans which are taking the biggest hit. Information must be fast, accessible and satisfy our ever-growing desire for entertainment. Our conversations have evolved into a careless dance: a back-and-forth performance in which each participant impatiently awaits their next opportunity to give their opinion. Brad Pitt’s character ‘Tyler Duerdin’ in the movie Fight Club aptly surmises: “When people think you’re dying, they really, really listen to you, instead of just waiting for their turn to speak”. Today, we listen to everything but we hear nothing.
In 2014, a friend and I started an organisation called JDOV Australia. Drawing on inspiration from the UK, we ask 4 members from the community to give the Jewish talk of their life. JDOV recognizes the dynamism of modern speech, the need for simplicity and quick doses of inspiration in this fast-paced generation. Each speaker has 10 minutes, no more, no less. We ask them: If tomorrow were your last day, what would your Jewish
message to the world be?
Each talk is carefully crafted, understanding that each word carries immense weight. Through the power of these words, the aim is to inspire people to share their Jewish message, or to re-engage with what it is they find meaningful within their Jewish identity. JDOV recognizes that each person’s story is unique, and that the value of these words cannot be underestimated.
Words can change the world. In an age where we’re pressured to talk in tweets or in bytes, JDOV provides an open platform for words to work their magic. Simple. Direct. Personal. No gimmicks. Just the truth.
I’ve learnt that we each have a story to tell. It’s how we tell that story that defines whether or not people will listen to the message and hear the meaning.