Give ear, O heavens, let me speak;
Let the earth hear the words I utter!
May my discourse come down as rain,
My speech distill as the dew . . . (Deuteronomy 32:1-2)
Words, words, and more words. These days, our Yamim Noraim, our Days of Awe, are days given over to a myriad of words as we pour out our hearts and souls in anticipation of the blessings of a New Year.
Y'hiyhu l'ratzon imrei fi . . .
May the words of my mouth [imrei fi]
and the meditations of my heart
be acceptable to You, Adonai,
my Rock and my Redeemer. (Psalm 19:15)
Most of us likely recognize these words, which appear in our liturgy in our siddurim as a form of closure to theAmidah and our silent meditation. The tradition of reciting these words at this point in the prayers is attributed to a fifth-century Babylonian Rabbi named Mar bar Rabina. As we close out the heart of our prayer, the T'filahor Amidah, we express the hope that the aspirations we have voiced in our prayers and the words we have spoken find favor in God's sight. I have often wondered whether we should also be focusing more intensely on ourselves, asking ourselves, to the extent that it is in our power, to make our words real in our deeds. The importance of making our words cohere with our lives is a potent message for us, especially in this season as we make our way from Rosh HaShanah to Yom Kippur.
The central phrase, imrei fi, "the words of my mouth," is also central in the opening of Moses's poem, which is the bulk of our portion for this Shabbat. Moses begins his final words proclaiming: "Give ear, O heavens, let me speak; / Let the earth hear the words I utter [imrei fi—literally, 'the words of my mouth']!" (Deuteronomy 32:1).
Reading the opening words of our portion, Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague (better known as the Maharal of Prague, 1525-1609) draws our attention to the way in which the text emphasizes that these are Moses's words. For a guy who started out with a serious speech impediment and a sense of inadequacy due to his limitations, Moses has come a long way. Judging by his verbosity throughout the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses surely seems to have overcome his challenges with speech and his nervousness as he offers his final message to the Children of Israel. As he reads the opening of Moses's poem, the Maharal asks, "Why does Moses claim he speaks his own words?" He goes on to ask why—if Moses is speaking as a prophet—does his message not resemble that of other prophets, say, like Isaiah? After all, Isaiah speaks a message similar to that of Moses: "Hear, O heavens, and I will give ear, for Adonai speaks" (Isaiah 1:2). Yet Isaiah makes it clear that the words he speaks originate with God. How does Moses come to refer to the words of his poem as his own, while Isaiah makes it clear that he is speaking God's words?
The Maharal goes on to cite a passage from the Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 19, where we read the following teaching from the third-century sage Rava: "At first the Torah is referred to as God's. Later on, once a person has studied and knows Torah, it is referred to as his."
Over and over again, our tradition reminds us that the teachings of Torah are like a precious commodity that we can acquire. Once we acquire them, through study and engagement with them, they become ours. When we find Moses and the Children of Israel in the opening of our portion, after forty years in the wilderness, Moses has engaged with Torah thoroughly. Thus, says Maharal, the Torah can be referred to as his. His words, "Give ear, O heavens, let me speak; / Let the earth hear the words I utter!" are truly and uniquely his. He has worked hard in his role as shepherd and guide for the Children of Israel to find his voice and to make that voice uniquely his.
As we enter the New Year before us, rich with its opportunities for prayer, study, and action, we must each ask ourselves, "How do we, like our teacher Moses, make Torah ours?" As the Maharal guides us with the teaching of Rava, we can make the Torah's words our words (imrei fi) through study. Yet, standing on the cusp of a New Year, that is simply not enough. If, during these Days of T'shuvah, these Days of Repentance, we ask God to hear and accept our words, we must be prepared to make the words we speak our own. And we must be prepared to make them real through prayer and study that lead to action.
BY THE WAY
There are only three places in which we find the phrase imrei fi in the Hebrew Bible. The first is in the opening of our portion, Haazinu. The second is in Psalm 19:15, as cited above. The third is in Proverbs 8:8: "All my words [imrei fi] are just, none of them perverse or crooked." (Rabbi Eric S. Gurvis)
Why [does Moses call out] unto the heavens and the earth? Because they are the witnesses of Israel, for it is written, "I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day" (Deuteronomy 4:26). This can be compared to the son of a king over whom his father appointed two guardians. Whenever his father adorned him with any crown, he did so only through the agency of both of them, so on the day of his marriage he appointed them as witnesses between himself and his father. Similarly, all the miracles that God wrought for the Children of Israel were performed through the agency of heaven and earth. So when [the Children of Israel] were about to enter Palestine, they sang a song through the agency of them both, because they serve as witnesses between God and them. [From] whence [do we learn] this? For it is said, "Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth, for the Eternal has spoken" (Isaiah 1:2). (D'varim Rabbah 10:4)
"Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak" is harsh language, "and hear, O earth, the words of my mouth" is softer speech. However, one should not wonder at that. To what can this be likened? To rain and dew. Just as some plants can survive with dew alone, others need rain. Grass is happy with showers but weeds need light rain. The same is true with people. Soft language is sufficient for some. Others have to be spoken to harshly. Everything is for the good of each, and each according to his or her level. (Simcha Rav, Shivim Panin Ba-Torah [The Seventy Faces of Torah], trans. from the Hebrew)
- Sometimes the words of our prayers are not words we can easily make our own. This is especially true with some of the challenging images of our High Holy Day liturgy. How do we make the words and the ideals our own?
- How do we process the reality that sometimes our hearts lead us to perform acts to which we must then adjust our words? How do we approach this reality without simply rationalizing our acts?
- What are some concrete ways in which I can make imrei fi—the words of my mouth—cohere with the work of my hands and the deeds I perform in the year ahead?