Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Words Matter

by Susan Weinberg

Words matter. It is a phrase that has great significance at a time when we have experienced the damage injudicious words can create. Today's discussion focused upon words and their meanings. I frequently use the derivation and meanings of English words as a way to step inside of a topic.  For this discussion we looked at words in both English and in Hebrew.

We began with a visual exercise looking at the following two Hebrew words:



We knew one meant broken and the other whole, but which meant which and why? Some of us focused on the closed mem at the end of the second word versus the open resh at the end of the first, thinking of wholeness as intact, a closed loop. Others noted the tall lamed between the two smaller letters of the second word, representing wholeness as a state of balance.

In fact the two words are Shevar and Shalom and as you might guess, Shalom relates to wholeness. It is this word that we use to say many things, hello, goodby and peace. The expression mah shlomcha literally means "What is your peace?" Perhaps another way of saying “Are you at peace? Do you feel complete?” Most Hebrew words have a three letter root out of which we can build a world of meaning. 

Some Hebrew words that include these roots for broken are broken-hearted (שבור לב) and fragile (שָׁבִיר).

Note that fragile in English doesn't contain the word broken, but the Hebrew word does. An expression in Hebrew is "to break one's teeth" (לשבור את השיניים) meaning to work really hard at something, a phrase that reminded me of grinding one's teeth in frustration.

There are differences between how Hebrew and English address the same words. In English we talk about breaking the law while in Hebrew you transgress the law. Do laws break or do people violate them? There is a fine distinction between the two, with Hebrew placing the burden for repair on the individual rather than the law. 

The word for crisis in Hebrew is mashber (משביר). A crisis moves us in some direction. I find myself thinking of that open resh, the last letter in shevar. Breakage is an opening to a next step, a gateway perhaps to wholeness. For additional meanings in Hebrew and related artwork you will find our source sheet for Jan in handouts.

We shifted our focus to the more familiar turf of English and how we use the word "break." A bud breaks open. We use line breaks in poetry to clarify where one line ends and the next begins. We have daybreak, the dawning of a new day and we breakfast, breaking our fast. We say, give me a break and one of my favorites, a jazz break which is an improvised passage or solo. We also take a break, a pause from our existing routine as we have done during covid. Breaking is not necessarily a negative term.

There is a story in Kaballah about the creation of the world starting out of the breakage of vessels. You can read more about it in this article that explores those resulting shards as inspiration in architecture. The Genesis story has God breaking the waters apart to form the firmaments above. Creation seems to be an act that involves breakage.

We came back to the idea of a passage between brokenness and wholeness, a liminal state or suspension that inextricably links the two in the movement back and forth between those poles.

And a few references of interest. . .

I recently read a thoughtful book that provides insights into this topic, exploring how we move from disruptions to wholeness. I recommend it as an exploration of this theme. The book is by Bruce Feiler and titled Life is in the Transitions. You can read more about it at my personal blog.

Alison shared a video that you'll find below on an exhibition of a poem formed from fragmentary words projected on the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Erik Jacobs, a Jewish artist of the Jewish Arts Collaborative, collaborated with Porsha Olayiwola, a black woman who is Boston's poet laureate, on the theme of Black as Light. Alison added an additional thought in light of our last meeting’s discussion of menorahs. Just as we are told to place a menorah in the window to celebrate Hanukkah with pride in our heritage, a candle used to be placed in the window to denote a home as part of the underground railroad.