We learn from an early age how to tell stories and how to express our own needs to others. For the first eight to ten years of life, we develop our use of language for survival. When we become old enough to understand the world around us, when we grow to become metacognitive, we begin to use our language to put our emotions, our ideas, and our experiences in to words. Our ability to produce and process complex language is what differentiates us from all other living creatures. It is an incredibly difficult and incredibly human task.
If I asked you, right now, to compose a completely unique prayer, could you? What if I told you it could be about anything?
Try it. It’s not as easy as it might seem.
Of course, most people are really good at what we call “small talk”. Most of us can spend hours just “chatting” about everything and absolutely nothing. I can sit across a table from someone and commiserate about frustrating classes, talk about childhood memories, and waste away a whole few hours. But when it matters most, most of us are speechless. Positive and negative experiences – if they are intense, chances are, we have no idea what to say.
Luckily for us, Judaism gives us scripted lyrics for times when we find ourselves so caught up that we can’t find our own words. Not only do I find that more often than not these words are much more appropriate for a given situation than I could personally compose, but I also find comfort in the fact that I’m not the first one to say them; that uttering these words and phrases connects me to a whole history of Jewish communities.
There are many examples of Jewishly-prescribed words for lifecycle events. “Mazal Tov!” literally meaning “Good luck!” but colloquially meaning “Congratulations!” is a well-known example. A bit lesser-known but commonly used in synagogue is the expression of “Yishar Koah” (sometimes “Yishar Kohekha” for males or “Yishar Koheikh” for females) which literally means “May you have unwavering strength.” We use this phrase, perhaps peculiarly, often to congratulate those who have participated in the synagogue service, but also to congratulate someone on a great accomplishment as well. In his article entitled “Yasher Koach: May You Have Strength!”, Eliezer Segal explores the origins of saying “Yishar Koah”. He fascinatingly goes through the explanations of two rituals surrounding Torah reading, and suggests that the term is a remnant of both of those combined, and concludes that “Yishar Koah” actually literally means, “May you have the strength not to cause the Torah to fall.” (Usually I would summarize the article in more detail but it’s so interesting I’d rather you just read it for yourself and draw your own conclusions. I don’t want to spoil the surprise!)
Judaism also provides us with words in times when we are stunned into silence. When a person is ill, we say tehillim, psalms, by their bedside, and we can recite a “mi shebeirakh” for them in the synagogue. When one hears that someone has died, Jewish practice prescribes the phrase, “Barukh Dayan Emet” – “Blessed is the True Judge”. In the Talmud, Tractate Berakhot 59b states that even upon hearing bad news (this blessing can also be said when one hears other bad news), one recognizes the incomprehensible role that God has in this world. When we are faced with comforting a mourner, Judaism prescribes the traditional words, “haMakom yinahem etkhem betokh she’ar aveilei tziyyon virushalayim” – “May God comfort you among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” And, when we ourselves are faced with coping with the loss of a loved one, we are prescribed the Mourner’s Kaddish, which, contrary to some popular belief, is not at all a prayer for the dead but rather a prayer of exultation to God and intended to sustain the living.
And for those times when we simply appreciate the world around us, Judaism also gives us blessings to say. Waking up, we are intended to say “Modeh ani lefanekha,” thanking God for restoring our lives and allowing us to wake up in the morning. The first part of davening that we say when we get to minyan in the morning is “Birkhot HaShahar,” which, if you read them closely, basically enumerate the steps in which we engaged to get ready and out of the house in the morning: (1) I woke up, (2) I opened my eyes, (3) I put on clothes, etc.
Most siddurim (plural of siddur) also contain a section of miscellaneous blessings or “birkhot hanehenin” – blessings of enjoyment, perhaps misnamed a bit. These include all kinds of blessings – blessings over food, over smelling sweet trees (welcome to springtime in New England!), over hearing thunder and seeing lightning, over seeing a rainbow. There are other blessings, also, for engaging in Torah study, for seeing a scholar engaged in Torah study, even for seeing “strange-looking people or animals.” Even in this case, when we might be stumped for words, our ancestors have suggested a response.
Being able to appreciate, produce, and process language makes us human. We consider ourselves the highest form of life because we can communicate with this complex system. But there is something else, I think, that makes us human: institutional and communal memory. We as people, as Jews, can benefit from the wisdom of our predecessors. In times of excessive joy and excessive hardship and sorrow, we lean on the words of those who came before us.
Perhaps our generation will produce words which are useful to the next generation. As we come up to Shavu’ot, I notice that perhaps this is one of those pieces that makes us a nation: not only are we connected horizontally with our contemporaries, but vertically to those who came before us and those who will come after us.
And now for another prescribed, but wonderful phrase: