“SPEAKING THE LANGUAGE” by Ariella Bracha Waldinger
One frequent hesitation to making Aliyah is the issue of learning a new language—can I learn to “speak” Hebrew?
Many Jews who return home already speak Hebrew or come with the basics. For others, however, the thought of sitting and learning Hebrew is intimidating and causes many perspective new immigrants to delay aliyah or, even more serious, not come at all.
Hebrew, the national language of Israel, is called Lashon HaKodesh, (the Holy tongue) because it is the language of the Bible. It was specifically used for reading the Holy Scriptures, prayers, religious writings and religious poetry. It had become a dead language, so to speak, when the Jews were exiled to Babylon, even though there were always Jews who held onto it and used it to communicate with Jews in other regions of the world.
The Hebrew language, as a spoken language, lay dormant until its revival in the 19th century. As the Jewish national spirit was being revived, certain individuals began to attempt to revive the language. Special thanks are due to the great, Jewish activist Eliezer ben Yehuda (1858-1922) who immigrated to what was then called Palestine in 1881 with full determination to revive the language. His personal ideology of national rebirth through speaking Hebrew and his clear focus on its significance, led to its revival as a spoken language. The Hebrew language was resurrected and brought back to life. This was a miracle of epic dimension, as no dead language had ever been revived. The rebirth of the language was symbolic of the Jewish Nation itself returning to life in their ancestral homeland.
Speaking the native language of any country is certainly ideal and aliyah agencies, as well as olim and native Israelis, will encourage you to try and learn as much as you can in order to soften your absorption in the Land. I too believe it is the ideal, but I suggest that ultimately it is up to each individual to decide how to implement it in their lives. There are many factors to be considered and there are NO ONE LINE ANSWERS. Additionally, you should never feel guilty if you do not acquire the ability to speak the language. I have friends my age, who have lived in Israel for 30 years, and have taken several Hebrew language lessons but have not been able to acquire the language. They lead normal, happy, successful lives. Obviously, if you have school age children or need to work, learning to speak Ivrit is not an option.
The real truth, from my personal experiences over the last 10 years, is that you can get by without speaking Hebrew or with just the basics. We have built a house, signed contracts, hired workmen, had furniture made, bought cars, bought appliances, had surgeries, had a garden and sprinkler system put in our garden and traveled around the land and found, you can always find someone who speaks English and will help you. ALWAYS! This is one of the many Blessings of living in our Jewish homeland. Jews want to help Jews and most important of all, HaShem guides us to everything and everyone we need to help us on our way.
Never allow the fear of not being able to acquire a new language keep you from making Aliyah.
Having said that however, I will share with you my personal thoughts on what it means to truly “SPEAK THE LANGUAGE” with an understanding that it is much more than simply speaking Hebrew or not speaking Hebrew.
I personally believe that there are four key values we must live by in order to ultimately “speak the language.” (1) take ulpan (language school) or private lessons and try to speak Hebrew as much as you can, (2) acquire the deeper understanding of the spiritual dimension of the sacredness of speech (3) develop a deep love and appreciation for Eretz Yisrael and Am Yisrael, (4) guard your speech in regards to how you speak (a )in regards to the land ( b) about the Jews and government in the land and (c) your experiences in the Land, i.e., that they are expressed with a positive outlook instead of a critical, negative one.
What is language anyway? It is the human capacity for using and acquiring a system of communication through voice sounds or gestures. Language is a manner of expression. The communication and manner of expression we are truly striving for when making Aliyah is the language of respect, connection and acceptance.
The Holy Land, ERETZ HAKODESH is a spiritual entity, therefore one has to treat it as such. We show our respect through the aspect that makes us human, which is our voice i.e., our words. Spiritual literature teaches us that the words we speak affect us on a deep level and affect the very land itself. When we speak holy words, in relation to our Land and our people, we are speaking the Holy Tongue, no matter what language we are speaking. When we appreciate the virtues inherent in the Holy Land and our holy nation and strive to connect with our fellow Jews in spite of our differences, we are embracing the language of the Land.
In the book,” Chofetz Chaim, A lesson a day: Concepts and Laws on Proper Speech,” it states, that when we examine our words, i.e., our speech, we come to see that more than any other human capacity, it defines us. What we say and how we say it is who we really are. The book goes on to state, that when we take hold of our power of speech, we take hold of life itself. The mouth, the primary instrument of speech connects us to speaking the language through elevated words. The Chofetz Chaim also tells us that adherence to the laws of guarding speech and not speaking ill of others or and especially of the Holy Land, empowers our prayers, validates our Torah learning and accesses G-d’s Divine Providence. It invokes the many blessings that G-d, in His kindness wants to shower upon us. The Vilna of Gaon says that proper speech is the single biggest factor in determining one’s portion in the world to come.
We truly “speak the language” when we communicate HaShem’s greatness and presence in the Holy Land. By taking hold of our power of speech in relation to life in the Holy Land, we take hold of life itself and truly learn to “speak the language.” We build up the land and people through positive interactions and speaking positively about our experiences. Then, we can match ourselves to its spiritual stature and build our nationhood as G-d desires. We then unite with the deeper aspects of holiness and learn to speak a new, spiritual language which bonds us to the spiritual dimensions of the land itself.
Dovid Rosoff in his book, “Land of our Heritage” writes that in the same way gravity operates according to certain laws and is invisible to the naked eye, but, with proper instruments, can be detected; so it is with holiness. Both physical and spiritual laws are real and verifiable. Holiness is an actual, measurable quality that expresses the extent to which G-d is revealed through a person or thing or place. That Eretz Yisrael is called the Holy Land means that of all the places on the planet, G-d’s sovereignty is most apparent in the Land of Israel. It is intrinsically unique and inherently different from all other places. Furthermore, he states, it and no other place was designated as the homeland of the Jewish people.
Therefore, “speaking the language” through a deeper understanding of the holiness of the land of Israel becomes the work of building our souls and coming closer to G-d. When we speak words of joy, fulfillment and faith, we are speaking the language of the Land. If we speak of lack or how wrong things are in Eretz Yisrael, we attach to imperfection and mar the pristine holiness of the land. Our Sages make it clear that holy words sustain and uphold the world.
Therefore, I believe the true language of Israel and the Jewish nation is the language of love, gratitude, faith, and deep appreciation. When we begin to understand the reason for coming home to our ancestral inheritance, as a means to build up our nation and bring honor to G-d, we suffuse our lives and our language with deep, spiritual content and meaning. When we focus our speech on appreciating and celebrating all that we have in our lives and especially the privilege of living in the Holy Land, we enter into the spirit of “SPEAKING THE LANGUAGE.” We infuse our lives with self transformation. What a treasured gift we receive as we elevate our speech and our lives in our ancestral homeland and truly learn to “SPEAK THE LANGUAGE.”