Monthly Archives: October 2012

The Power of Ideas

As children we were taught to say “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me!” As adults, many people think the same way – for example, when we were planning to study in university, many of our parents urged us to study “practical” things like medicine, technology, finance or business – but not abstract fields like philosophy, literature or history. Even our first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, famously said, “לא חשוב מה יאמרו הגויים, חשוב מה יעשו היהודים” – “It is not important what the Gentiles say – what is important is what the Jews do!”

Is this true? Are actions the only thing that ultimately count in this world? Or is there real power in ideas, and the words that convey them?

This morning, we began another cycle of Torah reading with the description of the creation of the world. Our rabbis (Avot 5:1) point out that the world was created through Divine speech – ten times in the Creation story, we are told “And God said…”

I think it is very significant that God chose to create the world with words – it seems he was trying to tell us something about how the world should work.

Words convey ideas. And history has shown that over time, a powerful idea will have staying power – countries, institutions and movements that have a compelling ideology will surpass and defeat those that do not, even those with greater economic or military power.

In ancient times, it was none other than the People of Israel who showed the world the power of an idea. In an entire world dominated by paganism, the People of Israel had a completely different conception of life: monotheism. This idea transformed the world – through Christianity it became one of the pillars of Western civilization, and through Islam it conquered another entire section of the world. Today, over half of the people on earth are monotheists. And with this we also brought other transformative ideas to the world, such as justice, kindness and holiness.

In modern times as well, ideas have ultimately conquered actions. Soviet premier Joseph Stalin may have sarcastically asked “How many (military) divisions does the Pope have?” in 1935, but by the time Boris Yeltsin climbed on a tank in 1991, it was clear that an idea that can stir millions is more powerful than the mightiest of armies.

Thousands of years ago, the Prophet Isaiah (2:2-4) foresaw a time when the ideas of the Torah would unite humanity and perfect the world:

וְהָיָה בְּאַחֲרִית הַיָּמִים נָכוֹן יִהְיֶה הַר בֵּית ה’ בְּרֹאשׁ הֶהָרִים וְנִשָּׂא מִגְּבָעוֹת וְנָהֲרוּ אֵלָיו כָּל הַגּוֹיִם: וְהָלְכוּ עַמִּים רַבִּים וְאָמְרוּ לְכוּ וְנַעֲלֶה אֶל הַר ה’ אֶל בֵּית אֱלֹהֵי יַעֲקֹב וְיֹרֵנוּ מִדְּרָכָיו וְנֵלְכָה בְּאֹרְחֹתָיו כִּי מִצִּיּוֹן תֵּצֵא תוֹרָה וּדְבַר ה’ מִירוּשָׁלִָם: וְשָׁפַט בֵּין הַגּוֹיִם וְהוֹכִיחַ לְעַמִּים רַבִּים וְכִתְּתוּ חַרְבוֹתָם לְאִתִּים וַחֲנִיתוֹתֵיהֶם לְמַזְמֵרוֹת לֹא יִשָּׂא גוֹי אֶל גּוֹי חֶרֶב וְלֹא יִלְמְדוּ עוֹד מִלְחָמָה:

It will be at the end of days, the mountain of God’s house will be established above the mountains, and raised above the hills, and all the nations will strebvam unto it. And many nations will go and say “Let us go up to the mountain of God, to the house of the God of Jacob. Let Him teach us His of ways and let us walk in His paths”, for the Torah will go forth from Zion and the word of God from Jerusalem. And He will judge between the nations and decide for many peoples, and they will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, and they shall not learn war any more.

Although the world is still clearly far from the fulfillment of this vision, it is highly significant that these words are engraved on a wall outside of the United Nations headquarters in New York, and commemorated in a sculpture in the United Nations garden.

The world was created with words and ideas, and it will be perfected by words and ideas. Making that happen is our job.