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Tuesday, November 24, 2020
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In a recent conversation with some fourth grade students, the topic of conversation turned to the following question: “What is the greatest invention ever created?” (Note: This question can be used to liven up a dinner discussion with kids at home if you are looking for a fun conversation starter.) The range of answers from the students was fascinating.

“A spoon,” one student remarked. “Did you ever try eating soup with a fork?”

“The wheel,” another exclaimed. “Otherwise, how would we ride bikes?”

One after another, students supplied incredibly thoughtful and creative answers. I had prepared myself for answers about the latest gadget (PS-5 perhaps?), yet the students seemed to grasp the point of the question and challenged themselves to think broadly in their search for answers. Finally, one student suggested that the greatest thing ever invented was the alphabet; otherwise, how would we communicate with another?!

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A debate ensued. Can the alphabet truly be considered an invention? Does an invention need to be something actually tangible—a real thing—the students pondered. Eventually, a proof was marshalled from the Hebrew language. We know that in Hebrew, words that emerge from the same source share a connection. The Hebrew word for “thing,” spelled “davar,” must be related to the Hebrew word for speaking, “midaber.” Using letters to create words is a real thing! Debate resolved. The alphabet is officially an invention! Yet, the original question remains. Can the alphabet, the source of our words, rank as the world’s greatest invention?

Recently, there has been renewed interest in the drashot of our late teacher and leader Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, z”l. With unusual elegance and eloquence, Dr. Lamm tackled contemporary issues with a rare gift of nuance, summoning classic sources to speak to modern times. In a drasha delivered 60 years ago this month, Dr. Lamm turned attention to the power of words.

He begins by asserting that the Jewish nation can only benefit the world through the power of our words. We have never been a numerous or powerful people. Yet, we have dramatically impacted world thinking through our choice and use of words.

Physically frail and with failing eyesight, Yitzchak reaches over to his son Yaakov. Confused by the incongruous nature of Yaakov’s words with his physical attributes, Yitzchak exclaims, “Hakol kol Yaakov v’hayadaim yidei Eisav”—“the voice is the voice of Yaakov, and the hands are the hands of Eisav.” From that moment, Dr. Lamm asserts, our tradition has maintained that the strength of Yaakov lies in his mouth, Yaakov kocho be’feh—specifically with his words.

This idea of davar and dibbur being connected manifests itself in other significant ways. Most notably, what the modern world calls the “Ten Commandments” we would define as the ten words—the Aseret Hadibrot. More than anything, Judaism gifted the world with big thoughts and ideas. This concept appears repeatedly in the writings of the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, z”l, who was taken from us too soon just two weeks ago.

In a drasha published in 2019 (Parshat Metzora), Rabbi Sacks wrote:

“Judaism, like other religions, has holy places, holy people, sacred times and consecrated rituals. What made Judaism different, however, is that it is supremely a religion of holy words. With words God created the universe: ‘And God said, Let there be…and there was.’ Through words He communicated with humankind. In Judaism, language itself is holy.”

The first principle of language in Judaism, according to Rabbi Sacks, is that it is creative. We create worlds with words.

In the introduction to his recently published “Judaism’s Life-Changing Ideas” (OU Press 2020), Rabbi Sacks notes that one “can have an idea, formulate it in words, and declare it to the world… However long it takes, though, ideas change the world. Some do so by leading to inventions.”

This comment from Rabbi Sacks seems to be linking us directly back to our original question.

Words lead to ideas. Ideas lead to inventions. Inventions change the world.

The student answer that the alphabet represents the most significant invention in history certainly seems plausible and worthy of consideration. After all, if Judaism’s contribution to the world at large is rooted in our big ideas, and all ideas are communicated in some form (spoken, written or otherwise), this idea certainly seems deserving of our attention.

We create worlds with our words. Worlds of kindness. Worlds of chesed. Worlds of thought. Worlds of invention. The careful and caring use of words is the hallmark of our people. Let us ponder our words carefully as we continue to create the world we desire for our children.


Rabbi Jonathan Knapp is head of school at Yavneh Academy.

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