Posted in Dvar Torah, on January 30, 2013

Parshat Yitro: The Power of Words

wordshurtorhealWords are very powerful!  Words can hurt and words can heal.  Words can create and destroy relationships.  A word’s power is not based on its length, the makeup of its letters, or anything else but its meaning.  While what the speaker or writer intends can be slightly altered by his tone, the way he writes it, or his facial expression, the underlying meaning remains the same.

One of the most significant phrases that we as Jews say many times a day is “baruch Hashem.”    While it is almost commonplace to utter this phrase, its source and deeper meaning are quite fascinating.

One may surmise that perhaps our patriarch, Avraham, or our first leader, Moshe, was the first to use this phrase, but that is not the case.  The first individual to utter this expression, in this exact form, was Yisro, in this week’s parsha.  Yisro, the first convert, must have been quite an amazing person.  Not only is a portion of the Torah named after him, but we invoke his memory by using these two “super words” every day.

But what do they mean? It seems obvious that they cannot only be understood literally: “Blessed is Hashem.”  Hashem surely does not need our blessing, and it would almost seem haughty for us to think we can bless the Supreme Ruler.  Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains this phrase in his commentary on this week’s parsha.  Rav Hirsch states, “For by uttering ‘baruch Hashem’ a man expresses his giving up all his completely free powers or action to do solely that which will please and give satisfaction to G-d.”  So, by saying these two words we are expressing one of the foundations of Judaism: that we have been put on earth to serve Hashem as best we can.  Imagine if we all took time to think about this concept every time we blithely responded “baruch Hashem” to someone’s question about our well-being.  Imagine if we thought of what it is that would satisfy Hashem every time we heard someone say these two words.  How different the world would be!

In many ways, at the juncture at which Yisro said, “Baruch Hashem,” he was the personification of this concept expressed by Rav Hirsch.  Yisro was the only non-Jew who heard about the inexplicable events of the exodus from Egypt, the splitting of the Red Sea, and the other miracles experienced by the Jewish people and derived the presence of Hashem from them. By coming to join the Jewish people, Yisro was completely giving up his free actions to please Hashem. Yisro was truly living what the words “baruch Hashem” are intended to convey.

We are all busy multitasking, and we may be using the phrase “baruch Hashem” by rote, without much thought.  Perhaps, if we took the time to ponder its real meaning, we would be worthy of witnessing the open miracles of redemption as did Yisro.

Miriam Esther (Luchins) Weiner – a former NY NCSYer, advisor in NER and NY, and chair of the Ben Zakkai Honor Society – currently serves as the Principal of the Providence Hebrew Day School in Providence, RI.