The cliche “actions speak louder than words” may, without intending it, betray a bit of it’s own bias. In so stating that actions can be somehow more impactful, more definitive, than simply saying something, the phrase implies that words by themselves do not have power or force – or at least as much as actions do.
While this certainly can be true – saying I’m going to go on a diet is very different than putting down the bag of chips – the phrase has, I think, devalued speaking to a point where we no longer recognize the power and force our words DO have. And nowhere does our religious sensibilities drive that point home as much as it does in the concept of prayer. Prayer is, almost by definition, “all talk and no action”. Or at least so it appears.
And the skeptics among us (Yes, I see you there in the back of the room. No need to be shy. All are welcome here and critical debate is encouraged.) might wonder if that’s not by design. Give people some words to say – not quite an incantation but still with a hint of beseeching a Higher Power – in the hope that doing so may alleviate any desire they have to actually get up, get moving, get organized, and change the status quo.
I’ll push back on the skeptics, both among us as well as the skeptical voice within us, and ask whether people – great, well-known people as well as every-day people in our communities – who take action to change the world around them don’t also pray? And I’d also like to ask whether every it’s reasonable to believe that every single person in the world, past and present, who prays, is a mindless drone, an unthinking “sheeple” who just follows the crowd?
While it’s true that some people may use religion and prayer as the “opium of the people” that Marx claimed it was, far more use it as a motivator.
The speech we enact within prayer is the pre-cursor to action. For some it’s the external expression of an internal monologue. For others, it’s not a monlogue (speaking to one’s self) at all, but a duologue (not a dialogue – two people speaking, but instead two people present where one speaks and the other listens).
And that only looks at the very person, private aspect of speech. Because we know that speech can, in fact, be incredibly powerful and not only lead to action, but intrinsically shape what those actions are. Because when you think about it for just a moment,
Speech can comfort
And in this month of Elul, with only 10 days left before we stand before the One Most High and plead our case, it’s important to recognize the power our speaking has – over those around us, and over ourselves.