G‑d said . . . and there was . . . ”

With no less than 10 statements, G‑d brought about our universe. Created in His likeness, we too have within us the ability to create and be creative. But with great power comes great responsibility. Perhaps Creation began with speech because the words we choose to use significantly matter in the lives we live—not just for ourselves, but also for society at large.

Those of us in the Helping Profession emphasize time and again that the ways we speak and act have profound effects on the ways we think. The stories we tell ourselves shape how we think about ourselves, both as individuals and as a collective. And those thoughts largely dictate the identities we maintain and, over time, defend. In short, we are who we describe ourselves to be.

I am part of a movement that advocates for the banishment of the word “retarded,” known simply as the R-word. When we use a word to categorize others, we intentionally or unintentionally limit them to that label and whatever future that category may imply. While a categorical term may be used with the sincerest of intentions or kindness, it is a label nonetheless—and labels are restrictive.

In most languages, there are words whose prefixes or suffixes can alter their meaning (or transform them entirely). One such, and widely used, example is the word “disabled.” When attached to a word, the prefix “dis” detaches the noun from its source. For example, when we disrespect others or things, we remove the element of respect from them. When we employ the term “disabled” to refer to others, we detach any (or potential) abilities from them. We all have abilities—many to be sure. And we also each have our share of challenges. But when we use the term “disabled,” we strip ourselves and others of the potential to exercise their G‑d-given abilities, however limited they may currently seem.

The upcoming Festival of Passover, which celebrates our nation’s miraculous exodus from Egypt, is the antithesis to labels.

Egyptian culture revolved around the rising and setting of the sun. It was a society bound by the rigid laws of nature, of which everything was consistent and predictable. Social classes were permanently fixed into a hierarchy system in which individuals could never advance; a slave forever remained a slave, and there was no merit in trying to advance or improve his or her condition or sense of self.

By contrast, the Jewish nation is guided by the moon, the lunar system, by which nothing remains stagnant. In the heart of darkness that was Egyptian society, we were commanded to sanctify the moon as an everlasting lesson to ourselves and the world around us that life is not fixed and that we are never confined to the selves we were or the things we did yesterday. Just as the moon wanes and waxes, we too can grow and transform ourselves—as many times as we need to—regardless of the environments or cultural backgrounds we grew up in.

In many ways, the Exodus was an emancipation from the confines of speech. The Haggadah describes the harsh labor that the Egyptian taskmasters imposed upon us as parach (Exodus 1:13), which can be broken up into the words peh-rach (a “weak mouth”). Furthermore, the very individual responsible for our pain and suffering, Pharaoh, is comprised of the words peh-ra (an “evil mouth”). The Hebrew word for Passover, Pesach, is made of the words peh-sach (a “speaking mouth”) because liberation from confinement lies in our ability to exercise our tremendous power of speech.

For Pharaoh and his taskmasters, speech was a means of limiting us to life of servitude and the restrictions of its rigid hierarchy system. Slaves and peoples living under dictatorships are never free to express thoughts or opinions of their own. True freedom requires freedom of speech, and that begins with the words we choose to use and the thoughts we conceive therefrom.

Passover teaches us that we are never confined to an identity imposed on us by other human beings. We are not meant to live in a category because true freedom transcends the limits that any category can completely contain.

But freedom is a collective process that can only be reached by working together. Although we remember and celebrate the Exodus from Egypt annually, we must continue to liberate ourselves daily and ensure that our identities are authentically ours. And that includes the words we choose—and refuse—to use.

Our Promised Land awaits. Let’s sing one final song together as we enter it as a unified and fully inclusive nation under G‑d.