Our world is filled with words. We hear them all the time from many different segments of society, including radio and television talk show hosts, friends and neighbors, and politicians. Everyone, it seems, has something to say about one subject or another. A major criticism of today's leaders is that they use too many words and that all they do is talk without really saying-or doing-anything. Clearly, words devoid of import-words that do not lead to action-are hollow vessels.
In the first verse of this week's Torah portion, D'varim, Moses initiates what is essentially a series of farewell speeches to the people of Israel: "These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel...." (Deuteronomy 1:1) This parashah begins the fifth and final book of the Torah, Deuteronomy, and initiates the account of the end of the great prophet's life. It is ironic that Moses, a man who said of himself that "I have never been a man of words" (Exodus 4:10), is so full of words as he nears his death. But his words, like the words of the Torah itself, are more than merely words-unlike the sound bites that trip from the lips of leaders like Bill Clinton or Tony Blair. The words of the Torah and Moses are the traces of transcendence.
As many modern scholars have maintained, the Torah most probably began as an oral tradition; in fact, it is the role that words play in this sacred document that is most relevant to our lives as contemporary Jews. In the Book of Genesis, for example, words represent the beginning of the divine act of creation: "God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light." (Genesis 1:3) Later in the Torah, God reveals the Ten Words (more commonly translated as the Ten Commandments) to the community of Israel, establishing a covenant with the Israelites for all eternity. Words are thus linked in the Jewish tradition to creation and revelation. But they are also connected to redemption, to the messianic era of peace and harmony that is described so powerfully by the biblical prophets, who attribute their visions to the "word" of God.
In the spiritual context, words are the traces of transcendence, the marks of divinity that permeate our world. As limited, human constructs, words will always fail to capture fully the essence of the infinite God, yet that is the very nature of transcendence, which, like fire, is ethereal and elusive. Maimonides claims that words are the means by which human beings can come to comprehend God and God's will. The Kabbalists describe ten s'firot, or divine emanations, as the only accessible representations of the "hidden" God. In both cases, God's identity and nature must always be mediated. Words can be those mediators, which can hence be transformed from meaningless noise into sacred vessels. They can draw us closer to the Divine while, paradoxically, keeping us at a safe distance. They can serve as the lifeblood of our souls. In a sense, the last words of Moses do not precede his death. Rather, they are his channel-as well as ours-to everlasting life.