Our words matter. What we say about others and to each other matters greatly. My family and I have been engaged over the past few months in an important rite of passage as we near the end of our year of mourning for our mother. We have been selecting the exact words that will be carved onto her tombstone. A year before her death, my mother made the deliberate decision to be buried in Israel and acquired an achuzat-kever (burial plot) for herself and my father.
In the opening story of this week’s Torah portion, Abraham arrives in Hebron following the death of his beloved Sarah, and before acquiring the most famous cemetery in history, Ma’arat Hamachpelah (Cave of the Patriarchs), he begins his mourning process, which includes both a eulogy and weeping. His words matter, but so do the absence of words, where only tears can be appropriate.
“Drink and I will also give water to your camels.” These were the precise words that sweet-talker Rebeccaa used to prove to Abraham’s servant Eliezer that she was the perfect shidduch for Isaac. Rebecca’s kindness and care for the stranger and even his animals cemented her role as a matriarch of our people.
While we do not pretend that our biblical heroes were perfect people, their common characteristic was they believed in kindness and righteousness. Immediately before Abraham debates with God about the impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, God discloses that Abraham and his descendants would be committed to “justice and righteousness.” Abraham then calls God out and asks, “Will the judge of the entire earth not deal justly?”
The words uttered by Abraham and Rebecca establish a precedent for how we as their descendants must act in the world, just as my mother’s sweetness, love of laughter, strength and beauty act as a compass for who my family members are meant to be. Our words matter and I pray that we got these ones right.