July 17, 2024
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Rabbi Harcsztark Gives Hitorerut L’Teshuva Address at SAR

(Courtesy of SAR HS) As a prelude to Yom Kippur, SAR High School Founding Principal Rabbi Tully Harcsztark took the stage for his annual schoolwide address, Hitorerut L’Teshuva, to share a message about the power of words to create a meaningful world. He began by discussing a trip he and his wife took this summer to Utah to visit five national parks, describing their experience sitting under a sky full of stars and seeing one of the 4,700 Starlink satellites orbiting the earth to provide affordable access to the internet. The feeling of looking up to the stars and experiencing the magnificence of God’s creation alongside the power of a human creation, struck a chord for him and inspired him to think about the power of words.

In Sefer Bereshit, Hashem uses the power of speech to create the world, בעשרה מאמרות נברא העולם. In perek bet, the second version of the creation story, Hashem brings the animals and birds before Adam and tasks him with naming them. The midrash describes a conversation between God and the angels. The angels ask, “Who is this person?” Hashem says, “He is wiser than you.” God brings the animals and birds before the angels and asks them to give them names. The angels, for whom the world is perfect as is, have no need to distinguish between different beings and objects; they have no answer. God then asks Adam who promptly gives names and pairings for all the animals and birds. Hashem even asks him what he wants to call himself. Adam says, “I should be called Adam, since I am from the earth. And I will call you Ad-nai because you are the Adon, the master of the world.” Ramban explains: “The natural world without humans does not need words but people do; we need to distinguish safe animals from dangerous ones, what is healthy to eat and what is not. Humans need the power of speech to communicate what we discover to our neighbors and to the next generation of people.”

Rabbi Harcsztark emphasized that it is significant that the first task Hashem gave Adam—and the first human invention—was naming. Citing scientist Leon Kass, he explained that the Torah is teaching us to understand that God created the physical world and Adam HaRishon created the linguistic world.

This verse describing Adam’s naming of animal and bird life is strikingly set between two pesukim that describe Adam’s lacking a partner for himself. Ramban explains: Hashem wanted Adam to recognize what he was lacking. Naming and pairing the animals brought Adam to recognize the need for a partner, to realize the lack and articulate his need by saying, “I’d like to have a partner.” Before making use of words, Adam HaRishon had to realize that something was missing. Words or names plus desire lead to creation.

The power of words, the names we give things, the ways we do things and the desire to do things: that’s the story of creation in Perek Bet. Rabbi Harcsztark explained that words give us the power to connect and the power to imagine. Human beings can create worlds with words, and it takes decisions and responsibility to decide the kind of worlds we build with words. He explained that words are holy, as illustrated by some of our most prominent leaders. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “Words are themselves sacred, God’s tool for creating the universe, and our tools for bringing holiness—or evil—into the world.” In that spirit, Rabbi Heschel sent a telex to President John F. Kennedy in 1963 that said, “The hour calls for moral grandeur and spiritual audacity,” expressing that he wants to use his words to create a world that’s different from the one we live in now.

Based on his understanding of the power of words, the philosopher Martin Buber posited that the greatest evil, the most destructive capacity of a human being, is the capacity to lie—and when they do, the world of living falls apart. This power feels especially prominent on Yom Kippur when we read Al Chet and Ashamnu, prayers in which a third of the lines focus on speech, warning us of how we use our words when we interact with each other and with Hashem.

Rabbi Harcsztark then quoted a psychologist, Dr. R. Duchstag, who wrote: “I rely on words to heal. In my work as a rabbi, I rely on words to inspire. When I write, I rely on words to communicate. As a meditator, davener, I have learned that words mean nothing at all.”

When he was looking up at the stars, Rabbi Harcsztark reminded the students that the amazing thing is that there were no words, just silence, and that sitting silently under the heavens in that way was truly amazing. He related it to being present when we recite the words of Kol Nidre—a prayer which undoes the power of our words. On the night of Yom Kippur, we are fully in the presence of Hakadosh Baruch Hu, all words, desires and creativity are set aside.

“I think that we should be tremendously proud that words helped us create a special place here at SAR HS and in the SAR community,” said Rabbi Harcsztark. “The potential that we have to create a space that’s full of love, full of respect, full of dignity, full of learning and creativity, growth and recognition of Hakadosh Baruch Hu is something really special.” He blessed the students and faculty to be zoche to Hashem blessings—with a year of peace, good health, nachat, joy and all wonderful things. G’mar chatima tova.

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