Wednesday, July 30, 2014


People are often affected by transformative words. What my High School French teacher once told me gave me a new perspective on life that stayed with me until now. Here is the story. But first, a word of introduction.

In ancient times, it was believed that words by themselves have the power of action. Thus, according to the biblical text, various components of our world came into being by the creative energy of God’s word: “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Gen. 1: 3). Similarly, in the ancient Near East, treaties between countries as well as law collections were often concluded with a list of eloquent blessings and terrifying curses; blessings to reward those who fulfilled the requirements of the laws and treaties, and curses to bring down the punishment of the gods upon those who transgress them. Even borders were secured by placing signs that contained curses. (Today we say, ‘beware of dog’). Now we understand why the book of Proverbs emphasizes that, “Death and life are within the power of the tongue” (18: 21).

Words still have power of action, even though their impact is less than cosmic. When we say to someone, “I love you” or “I hate you”, we establish a new level of relationship. When we propose to our sweetheart by asking, “Will you marry me?,” And he/she says, “Yes,” we change the nature of our bond. Similarly, when the police officer says, “You are under arrest,” you better stay put where you are. When the boss says, “You are fired,” that is the end of your employment in that office. And, God forbid, when the doctor tells you “You have cancer,” the verdict falls on you like a bomb. So, watch what you say, and how you say it, because words do count.

When I was a teen-ager in Istanbul, Turkey, my life changed dramatically after my High Scholl French teacher, Miss Fernandez, a petite old lady, told me something that remained with me for the rest of my life. As I was growing up, I realized that, even though my classmates were getting taller, I was not. And that was beginning to bother me.  (I am still not very tall; only 5.5”). So, during one of our private conversations, I shared my concern with her. In response, she told me that being tall is not always a measure of success but that in reality “height is measured from the shoulders up.” That was a revelation. To me it meant that in order to grow in stature I had to develop my mind and overcome my shortness through various types of intellectual pursuits. 

It is this new insight that led me to the study of law, to the rabbinate, to graduate school, and ultimately to an academic life. My French teacher’s insight gave me a new direction in life, and I am who I am today because of what she taught me. Her memory is a blessing.

Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.
Aug. 2014.