Teach us to number our words

“So teach the number of our days, so that we shall acquire a heart of wisdom.” – Psalm 90:9

The other day I came across quite the footnote in a collection of Hasidic Tales.

It says:

The Baal Shem Tov taught that a person is born with a fixed number of words to speak; when they are spoken, the person dies. Imagine that this is true for you. Every word you speak brings you closer to your death. The next time you are about to utter a word, ask yourself whether the word is worth dying for.

What a warning against idle speech! And what a reminder of the power and dignity of our words!

Each word I write on this daily blog about death, too, brings me nearer to my own death.

There is something solemn about this, but also something profoundly invigorating.

Don’t wait to speak your own convictions

The other day, a friend of mine shared something gripping on which he has been reflecting lately. He said, “You don’t want to hear your deepest convictions from someone else for the first time; say it yourself.”

I was really taken by this idea — that it’s a shame to hear your own deepest convictions and insights spoken aloud by someone else before you have had the courage and boldness to speak them yourself.

My friend told me that he found this idea in an 1841 essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson. The next day, I read the essay and here’s the crucial section to which he alluded:

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An Exemplary Eulogy

One of the most amazing speeches I ever had the privilege of hearing in person was delivered by Gila Sacks, the daughter of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. Gila delivered this speech to honour her father on the occasion of him being awarded the Templeton Prize in 2016.

A few years after that event, just this past fall, Rabbi Sacks passed away. When I watched the eulogy (below) that Gila delivered, many of the same qualities I had so admired about her Templeton speech shone through this one as well:

In this eulogy, Gila speaks to her father’s conviction that things can change and people can be responsible for changing them as well as to his character in forging his own children to become who they were created to be.

These are not mere words of sentimentality. What makes the eulogy so compelling is how Gila weaves the lessons from her father together with anecdotes from her ordinary, daily life along with what she learns and grapples with in the Bible.

I was struck by how well this eulogy fulfills the Jewish custom of eulogizing and lament, which has its basis in when Abraham eulogized and mourned his wife Sarah.

According to Jewish tradition, as discussed in this article, “When composing a eulogy, the goal is to praise the deceased, evoke an emotional reaction from the listeners, inspire listeners to improve their own lives by finding the qualities mentioned within themselves, and to consider their own legacies.”

Gila’s eulogy of her father is exemplary of this in every respect. She honoured her father well by reminding her listeners of their own capacity to build the world from love and responsibility.