Wolpe delivered the homily for the 9:15 a.m. EDT Tuesday, July 21, morning devotional service on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform. His sermon title was “The Power of Words,” His scripture text was Exodus 4:10 (NRSV) —
“But Moses said to the Lord, ‘O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.’”
Wolpe’s mother suffered a devastating stroke at age 52 that “took away her words.” She lived the next 25 years barely able to speak. Her first word after two years of not speaking was “prison.” “She was trapped inside herself, but she still lived with the same sense of fire and life.” he said.
For her 80th birthday, Wolpe and his three brothers took her out to dinner. At the end of the meal they all pulled out their wallets to pay. Their mother said, ‘No.” They all started to put their wallets away, thinking she was going to pay, when she said, “Dessert.”
Wolpe said, “With one word we can assert who we are. We know how crucial words are because of one person in the Bible — Moses.”
Asserting that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible, Wolpe showed how Moses had trouble with words. When Pharaoh’s daughter found a baby in the bullrushes, Moses wrote “she sees a baby crying, not hears,” Wolpe said.
When God told Moses to go to Pharaoh and tell him to let the Israelites go, Moses told God, in Hebrew, that he was not a man of “debarim,” or words.
“Moses hit the Egyptian who was beating an Israelite; he did not use his words. In Hebrew the word for the 10 Commandments is the 10 Debarim. God created the world with words; words create worlds,” Wolpe said.
He continued, “Why, in the book of Numbers, is Moses forbidden to go into the Promised Land? God told him to speak to a rock to get water to flow, but Moses hit the rock. He still hadn’t learned his lesson.”
The book of Deuteronomy in Hebrew is titled Debarim. It contains Moses’ speech to the Israelites before he died.
Every synagogue features a tabernacle where the Torah scroll is stored.
“The Jewish tradition is a tradition of words. When you see someone kiss a mezuzah, they are not kissing the metal covering, but the sacred words written inside. When you drop a prayer book, you pick it up and kiss it because it contains sacred words,” Wolpe said.
He continued, “Everyone has someone in their life whose words changed their life. If it was done for you, you can do it for others. You can change how someone sees the world.”
What we say can miraculously change someone. “Words are intangible but powerful. Words can start and end a war. Words can create and end love,” he said.
Moses had to learn how important it was to speak, to understand what God expected of him.
“I used to use words very freely, but when I saw my mother struggle for words, I realized words are a gift. We need to draw close and use words as God intended,” Wolpe said. “Next time you want to say something quick and easy, think, ‘dessert.’”
The Rev. George Wirth, a retired Presbyterian Church USA pastor from Atlanta, presided from the Hall of Christ. Joshua Stafford, interim organist for Chautauqua Institution, played the Tallman Tracker Organ. Michael Miller, a Chautauqua Opera Apprentice Artist, served as vocal soloist. The organ prelude, performed by Stafford, was “Prelude No. 1,” by Joseph Sulzer. Miller sang the hymn, “Breath of God, Life-bearing Wind.” The anthem was “Sarabande,” by Joseph Sulzer, and sung by Miller. Stafford played “Festive Prelude No. 1,” by Lewis Lewandowski, for the postlude. This program is made possible by the Rabbi Samuel and Lynn Stahl Lectureship for the Understanding of Judaism.