By Dr Howard Goldenberg
When my stroke struck it struck my words
I’d speak a word and hear it slurred
The stroke struck my spoken word –
My word! How dear to me my darling words
The stroke struck words
Uttered aloud at prayer
I slurred those words
Unless I prayed with care
When I spoke the word
I recalled the ‘absurd’
Tale of the Baal Shem,
Master of the Name:
when a man is born his words are numbered:
a man lives and speaks and exhausts his store
of words, then falls,
silenced, is heard no more…
That tale, to which I’d ascribed no store
Came to mind, and led me to deplore
The words I’d tasted,
Words I’d wasted
The basilar artery
That feeds the pons
And it happened to me.
As strokes go
It wasn’t much –
Not so much a stroke
As a gentle touch –
And as strokes go
My words returned!
To heaven sent
But it was a stroke
Pontine infarct in fact
Seen by scan
It took me aback
Mum said, after her second stroke,
The next one will get me –
Three strokes and you’re out!
We both laughed at death’s little joke.
Or was it a joke?
Words are the weapon of the Jew. Amoz Oz and his daughter co-authored a book on the subject of Jews and words. We have a love of words. Our Commandments are called The Ten Words, and by contrast, when Scripture endows an animal with speech, the endowment is potent for evil (the serpent) or for truth (Balaam’s ass).
The stroke, (more a caress than a stroke, really) fell in the month of Ellul. Was Balaam’s ass talking to me? – I wondered. A wound to my words, that’s all it was, and only those words uttered without thought. That is, I was afflicted only when I davvened without intent. The immediate result was a slowing of that automatic utterance which had become my ritual. And when I slowed, words and phrases leapt out at me: I’d awaken and I’d say Modeh ani l’fanecha (I thank you…) I’d start the Amidah with: Hashem, sfatai tifthach (Hashem, open Thou my lips!) and I’d close that passage of pure prayer with Elokai, n’tzor l’shoni me’rah (My God, guard my tongue from evil).
I came to realise that our practice of spoken prayer was itself a sly joke: we use words to pray that our words be good. I heard myself reciting the prayer to Hashem that He should listen (shema koleinu, Hashem Elokeinu) when I, the speaker was not even attending. That realisation of my careless holy speech reminded me how colossally impertinent I was, as if I’d addressed the Bench with my back turned.
This enterprise of prayer is, by its nature, audacious. We speak to Hashem with our requests (nineteen of them, in fact, in even a routine Amidah). The act of prayer presumes to imply that the Almighty should listen, take heed and alter His plan or His intent: Hey, listen, God, I’ve got this great idea, actually a better idea than Your own.
In sefer Dvarim Moshe warns us: motza sfatecha tishmor (guard that which departs from your lips). Perhaps he’s recalling that occasion when Miriam, his own sister, traduces him for his union with a Cushite woman. For that sin of speech she is stricken with leprosy. Moshe’s immediate response is instinctive and impassioned. He cries, el nah, refah nah la (O God, heal her, I pray!) Moses’ words redeem Miriam’s words. Moses literally asks God to reverse His decision. God heeds, acts and heals.
Ellul turned to Tishrei. On Rosh Hashanah I blew the shofar: one
hundred impassioned notes, now the pained cry of tekiah, now the helpless yelping of teruah, now the stuttering of shevarim. One hundred notes and not a single contaminating human word, nothing insincere, nothing half-hearted, nothing sly, sophistic or even clever. Pure prayer. The shofar had stopped my lips from speech.
In this season of confession it’s meet for me to confess. An addict of words, a wielder of words – in work, in play, in creation, in war, I’ve erred and I’ve wounded. I offer this confession with these public words, which alone will be utterly vain, unless underlaid with deeds. That’s our paradox: we’ll use speech to try to atone for speech. Other than the whirling of chickens overhead in an attempt to make the thought flesh, we have only words.
So, we’ll solemnly pray to God to annul our vows. We’ll say contritely al chet she’chtannu bevitui sfattayim, for the sin we sinned before You by an utterance of our lips.
We’ll follow this with al chet she’chattanu… b’dibbur peh, for the sin we have sinned before You in speech,
and shortly afterwards with al chet she’chattanu… be’vidui peh for the sin we have sinned before You by insincere confession.
The liturgy searches out my errors relentlessly:
Al chet she’chattanu … be’tumm‘at sefattayim (for the sin we have sinned before You by impure speech (ah, all those dirty jokes, all that sexist speech.)
Al chet she’chattanu…b’tifshut peh for the sin we have sinned before You by the folly of speech.
I thought of Roberta Flack:
Strumming my pain with his fingers
Singing my life with his words
Killing me softly with his song
Killing me softly with his song
Telling my whole life with his words
Killing me softly with his song…
And I thought of Moshe Rabbeinu, who said, va’ani aral sfattayim, (and I am uncircumcised of lips), and remorsefully, and vainly, I wished I was too.