The Mystical Origin of Words
The Mystical Origin of Words
I first tasted the power of words in the pages of the novel Little House on Rocky Ridge in third grade.
When I opened the book and my eyes settled, I was in a different world—I no longer saw the lines on the page, heard the dog barking, or smelled my mother’s cookies baking in the kitchen. I was laying on my back in a covered wagon, looking up at the night sky, listening to wolves howling and the wheels churning the raw soil. I was crossing the river, clinging to my quilt as the quickening current pulled at my dress.
I could not tell if what I was experiencing was normal or magical—if the words had some kind of secret power, or if something unusual was happening in my own mind.
Flash forward. I am thirteen years old and unable to sleep. I sneak out of bed and lean against the wall by my desk, translating the images circling through my mind onto the pages of my notebook, taking my thoughts, which were much like the universe in the early days of creation: unformed and void, and giving them an existence independent of me. After several minutes of scribbling, I am calm and ready to sleep.
For me, these two formative experiences bring to light some fundamental questions about words and language.
First, what is the real essence of words and language?
And second, how do we as humans relate to it?
According to the Baal HaSulam, a Kabbalistic master from the early 1900s, there are three levels of language.
The roots, level one, are the spiritual source of words. You don't see the roots of a tree, but you know they provide all of the tree’s sustenance. The roots hold the tree in place, creating the foundation necessary for growth, but remain concealed and virtually unknown. This place of origin is beyond our immediate grasp, but we convene with its fruits, the words we use, without much thought.
The second level of language is branches, which represents that which flows forth from the roots; spiritual concepts. Concepts connect the outward use of language with the larger-than-life ideas through stories and metaphors. For example, there is a midrash, a commentary on the Torah, that says Pharaoh was an Amah (about half the size of your arm) tall.
Does this mean he was literally twelve inches tall? Of course not. It means, among other things, that he had no ability to fight his own evil inclination and was, therefore, a “small person.” Often when we engage in language, we use physical words to describe a conceptual/spiritual, rather than literal, reality.
Spoken Language, the regular old “I am hungry” or “I like the blue couch,” is the third piece of the equation. Everyday speech can feel easy and even pointless, but it seems that even the most mundane words come from a source much greater than we can appreciate
The implications of the Baal HaSulam’s definition are sobering.
When we engage with words, when we speak, even the simplest sentence, we are drawing power up from the Unknown into to our physical world.
Even “I can’t find my keys” becomes something pretty big.
We Are the Vehicles
It’s very nice that words have such a sublime origin, but how do we relate to that in a tangible and practical way?
Words and language are the driving force behind relationships, something virtually everyone on this planet deals with on a daily basis. Beyond simply relaying information from one side to another, our relationships involve a creative speech that is unique to humans (yes, dolphins communicate in advanced ways, but do not have abstract/metaphorical speech as far as we know).
We can see one of the (if not the) first mentions of the creative power of speech in the book of Genesis when G-d said “let there be light” and then there was light—He used speech to bring physical reality into existence.
Simply expressing words can often have great and enduring implications. As an angsty pre-teen, I was in awe of my own creativity, the ability to concretize ideas through words in my notebook. Saying “I do” on your wedding day seals the relationship in a way that no actions can.
Speech is a tool of creation, whether its divine heavenly creation, or the creation of an idea, a relationship, a movement, or even a simple action.
Through sincere speech, we can build up a person, giving them the tools and confidence to achieve all of their potential and beyond. We can also destroy through speech, breaking someone’s world apart with a few simple words or sentences.
Clearly, words have tremendous power, and we as human beings are tasked with using this power wisely.
When we consider that speech is something of divine/infinite/undefinable origins...
When we reflect on the tremendous power our words have to create and destroy, and really think before using them....
And when we make it our personal mission to use all speech in a mindful, constructive, creative way---to speak deliberately, not just to fill empty space, and to really consider the after-effects of our words...
We are in turn connecting ourselves to the unknown source of all things and drawing that power out into the world.
Perhaps this limitless power is what I experienced when reading my first novel and releasing my ideas to a sheet of paper in late in the night. With a new perspective on the source of language, it actually seems more magical now than it did then.