Our Gemara on Amud Aleph once discussing the pitchfork, which in Hebrew is עתר, notes that the Biblical language used to describe Yitschok’s prayers that his wife become pregnant was ויעתר. The Gemara compares the prayers of a Tzaddik to a pitchfork in that it can completely overturn the nature of his fate as a pitchfork tosses the grain on the threshing floor.
The Ben Ish Chai (Benayahu) uses word play to show how literally fate is overturned by changing the word. פשע sin to שפע divine flow. נגע affliction to עונג , and נגף plague to גפן vine. In regard to Yitschok, his fate was גרוש to be driven away because they were an infertile couple, to שרוג which means intertwined as their subsequent childbirth would bring them closer.
Why do these wordplays matter? It is important to understand that to a mystic, words are not just words, but rather they are building blocks for all that is. In fact, the Hebrew word for “word” is Teivah, which means a box. It’s a place to hold and store something, at the very least an idea, but theologically much more than that. Notice the extreme caution Maharam Mi-Rutenberg takes in regard to how to pronounce the traditional Rosh Hashana prayer to be inscribed in the Scroll of Life (See Tur OH 582). This might seem incomprehensible at first glance, but in truth this is one of many examples where psychology and mysticism express similar ideas, but in different words and terms.
There is an intuitive truth to the idea that the words we use can build or destroy worlds. The first thing to notice is that we humans construct narratives about ourselves to act as anchors and points of reference. This exists on an individual and a societal/cultural level. For example, you walk into a pizza shop to order, “One slice, spicy fries and a Diet Coke.” How do you know what to say? How can you tell when to assert yourself, what part of the line to get onto, when the man behind the counter is making a good-natured joke? What the pizza is supposed to taste like, and how to open those frustrating ketchup packages. There are hundreds of bits of data that would completely confound even a person of exceptional intelligence if they had to figure it out for the first time. Instead, your mind engages in the “pizza store subroutine“. If this is what happens when we order a pizza, can you imagine the pre-existing internal narratives that go into intimate relationships? How we are supposed to interpret nuances, when we should be afraid, when we should allow ourselves to be vulnerable? This is an area where psychotherapy shines when used properly. It gives a person a chance to rethink, reprocess, and rewrite certain narratives.
Consider how we think about ourselves. Are we brave heroes in our story? Are we lazy, good-for-nothings? Are we on a quest to accomplish, or are we hurtling toward a tragic fate? So much of what we do is based on an internal script and narrative that we have come to believe about ourselves. On a social/societal level we have beliefs about personalities and behaviors. In Judaism we have the rabbi/teacher, the rebbetzin, the hidden Tzaddik, the am ha-aretz, the faithful simple tailor, the sensual greedy balaboos, the overbearing balabuste, the long suffering meek wife, and so many more. These are like little apps or subroutines that we unconsciously engage in when circumstances seem to indicate or activate them. Jung called them Archetypes that reside in the collective unconscious. The point is, they are narratives in words and internal descriptions. They are a way of organizing an overwhelming amount of chaotic data into a manageable form. However, the shortcut which gains efficiency and function, also causes a loss. The loss is seeing reality as it is. The loss causes us to sometimes be paranoid or believe unhelpful things about ourselves or behave in less adaptive and less functional ways in real time.
Recognition of this, truly recognizing this, that we are built on words and our society is built on words is fundamental. The great mystics, and some of the great psychologists realized this.
Translations Courtesy of Sefaria