Our every thought or word has world-changing power


Exodus 38:21-40:38

I Kings 7:51-8:21

I once heard a meditation teacher muse about what it would be like if all of the thoughts inside our heads were somehow broadcast, so that those around us could hear what we were thinking.

At first, the image may seem funny — the stuff of offbeat movies or the cartoonist's "thought balloons." On second thought, for many of us, the prospect would not be so funny at all. If the continuous monologue of our thoughts were broadcast, those around us would hear of our most extreme fears and preoccupations, and the ordinary nastiness — or worse — that may arise in us from moment to moment. In fact, some of the things we think about ourselves or others are so violent or abusive that they might land us in court if they became known.

If you find that possibility frightening, take it one step further. What if the sometimes raging, hateful thoughts inside our heads actually had an impact on our world? A horrifying prospect, indeed.

But, you may protest, that is not a Jewish idea. After all, Judaism only cares about action in the world, isn't that right? Actually, no.

In a remarkable piece of spiritual imagination, the medieval commenator Rashi imagines Moshe marveling over Betsalel's inspired ability to intuit the divine plan for the deserr mishkan (sanctuary). Moshe says to Betsalel, "You have been in the shadow of God [betseil El], for this is precisely what the Holy One commanded me to do!" (Rashi on Exodus 38:22).

Rebbe Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev muses about the metaphor of God as our shadow. "What a person does — the shadow does. So, too, as it were, what the person does, God does. And so one must consider all of one's words and deeds carefully, in accordance with the divine will…"

Then the rebbe is reminded of the first words used to describe the craftsman Betsalel back in parashat Ki Tissa: "See, I have singled out by name Bezalel…I have endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft, to make designs…" (Exodus 31:2-4).

Interestingly, the expression usually translated, "to make designs," is actually lachshov machashavot, which literally means "to think thoughts." The rebbe says that the person who wishes to reach a higher rung of piety will weigh thoughts as well as deeds. "When the Torah says lachshov machashavot ["to make designs," or literally, "to think thoughts"], it means that Betsalel labored to form his thoughts [as well as his words and deeds] in accordance with the divine will, and hence his name, 'Betsalel,' that is, that God is his shadow."

What are we to make of this extraordinary metaphor, of God as our shadow? For those who imagine God as a Supreme Being, this is an image of inseparable closeness between ourselves and the Holy. God is with us at every moment, in every move we make, as a mirror, support and constant companion.

For those for whom God is known not as a Being but only by divine attributes present in the world, this might mean that mercy, compassion, loving-kindness, patience, justice and truth are a constant presence in our lives. Even though they may frequently be invisible to us, they are ever-present, responding to our every move.

For those who experience the Divine as the Oneness of all things, this image reminds us that every word, every deed, even every unspoken thought necessarily impacts the entire world, as all of us are part of a single, inseparable whole.

In any case, this image suggests that we have awesome power in the world, that our words, deeds and even our thoughts and feelings can quite literally change the world, the Master of the Universe, life itself. What a frightening and breathtaking possibility.

This is an especially potent teaching in these difficult days, as we — as Americans, as Jews, as human beings — brace for a war that we would rather avoid. This is a time to act on our beliefs in the public sphere. Even in our private lives, it is a time to practice the attitude we want to fill the world. It is a time to weigh even our thoughts and feelings with great care, refraining at least from pouring more hate, suspicion and violence into the world in the privacy of our own minds and hearts. With the Holy One as our shadow, may we find our way to more peaceful times.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, peace educator and justice activist, and teacher of Mussar. More information on her work can be found at rabbiamyeilberg.com.