The other evening I was checking my e-mail when an "instant message" from a friend in New York popped up on the screen. A few seconds later the telephone rang: It was a friend in Minnesota. Soon after, I received another "instant message" from a colleague in California. Since we all know one another, we had a four-way "chat" via two different media. There we were, in four regions of the country, talking to one another as if we were sitting around a living room. The most amazing thing about the whole experience is that there is nothing amazing about it at all: It is a commonplace occurrence. We live in an information age that allows us to be in instant contact with anyone at any time. We are limited only by our imaginations and technology's increasingly proficient ability to match them. Our words are instantly and efficiently transmitted throughout the world.
One of the results of the ease with which we can communicate is that our words and conversations can thereby lose their import and impact. Every day we are bombarded with words. We receive junk mail and e-mail and are constantly being solicited by telephone. The Information Age is in danger of turning into a wilderness of wasted words.
The final book of the Torah, which bears the name of this week's parashah, has no wasted words. Parashat Devarim consists of Moses' final speeches to the Israelites. It begins as follows: Eleh hadevarim asher diber Moshe el-kol-Yisrael, "These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel." (Deuteronomy 1:1) Traditional commentators (Midrash Rabbah 1:15 ff.) take great pains to point out that Moses, the man who first encountered God at the burning bush with the words Lo ish devarim anochi, "I am not a man of words" (Exodus 4:10), proves to be a great orator in the final chapters of his legacy.
It is interesting to note that the Book of Devarim is linguistically linked to its predecessor, Bemidbar. They both share the same Hebrew root davar. Bemidbar is a book about growth and chaos. It is in the midbar, the wilderness, that the Israelites rebel: We challenge Moses and even God's authority. In Bemidbar we are presented with a Moses who exhibits great fluctuations of temper and temperament. He negotiates and manipulates. He is alternately filled with cockiness and self-doubt. He is a tortured soul. Anger and insecurity cause him to lose everything he holds dear. His words alternately burn with despair and compassion.
Devarim, on the other hand, is a book that brings closure. The Moses we see in Devarim has gone through a radical transformation. He now understands that his days are numbered. Self-pity has given way to self-awareness. Every moment and every word must count as he coaches, cajoles, chastises, and cheers his people on, on the eve of their entrance into the Promised Land.
In Buberian terms, the Midbar, as featured in Bemidbar, is the realm of the "It"--of daily transactional interaction. Devarim, on the other hand, is the realm of the "Eternal Thou"--of meaningful and life-changing connection to one another and to God.
Like Moses and the Israelites, each of us must travel through our own midbar in order to fully understand our role in life. As we grow as human beings, our task is to understand that life is a process of becoming aware of and accepting our limitations and gifts. Some of us never leave the midbar: We remain trapped in the seductive cycle of becoming and never fully emerge into the realm of Devarim. Most of us (most of the time) fluctuate between the two realms--shifting between higher and lower arenas of consciousness and connection. Our goal in life should be to constantly seek to make our words and our deeds reflect the potential for holiness that God has given us by creating us in the divine image. Like Moses, we should strive to understand that there are no wasted words. Every conversation and each connection that we can make with one another provide us with the opportunity to experience holiness.
May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
We are a people who value words. We cherish and celebrate the stories that are formed from words, telling and retelling our stories. On Simchat Torah we end one cycle of reading our stories and begin anew. On Passover we teach and reteach our children the central story of our people. And as we tell our stories again and again, each generation hears them differently and learns new lessons. Much of Parashat Devarim is the retelling of events related in Exodus and Numbers. In this portion, Moses addresses the new generation of leadership that has come of age in the wilderness, the generation that will be allowed to enter the Promised Land.
Moses is retelling a story that this new generation of leaders needs to hear in order to succeed. Moses reminds the people of their history and why it has taken them forty years to enter the Promised Land. He reminds them of the disobedience and faithlessness of the older generation in order to help the new generation learn from the mistakes of their forebears.
A good teacher, Moses takes the same material he has used in the past to create a new lesson plan, since he now knows what works and what does not. He uses carefully chosen words to convince the people that God will be with them and that they should not fear entering the Land of Israel, making specific reference to God's role during the Exodus. But because this generation has not undergone what their parents had suffered in Egypt and knows only the reality of the wilderness, Moses must find a new and fitting image to explain God's role as their compassionate protector. Therefore, Moses adds an unusual metaphor that does not appear anywhere else in the Torah in this exact form: "Adonai your God carried you, as a man carries his son, all the way that you traveled until you came to this place." (Deuteronomy 1:31) For this generation that was born in the desert and whose earliest survival depended upon their being carried by their human parents, this is a powerful metaphor. This image of God as the ultimate caring parent also provides a striking contrast to the all-too-mortal failings of their parents that Moses is recalling.
The passages in this portion about the failure of the Israelites to have faith in God and to merit entering the Land of Israel are regarded by our tradition as a rebuke. But as Moses begins to recount the wrong-doing and faithlessness of the Israelites, he adds, "May Adonai, the God of your ancestors, increase your numbers a thousandfold and bless you as God promised you." (Deuteronomy 1:11) Like a parent reminding a child that no matter what, she loves him, so, too, Moses' blessing serves to remind the people that they are God's beloved children, no matter what. Moses understands the power of words to both rebuke and bless, and he balances the harshness of din, judgment, with rachamim, mercy. Thus, through the retelling of events from Exodus and Numbers, this first portion of the book Devarim, which literally means "Words," reminds us of the power of words through the particular way in which a familiar story is retold. The folktale about the town gossip who is made to go collect feathers that she had released in the wind teaches us that words once spoken cannot be taken back and that we must, therefore, choose our words carefully. Because he chooses his words carefully, Moses, who often had difficulty speaking, teaches us indirectly by his wise example.
Questions for Discussion
- Think of two different versions of a familiar folktale, fairy tale, story, or even a joke. What is the significance of the different wordings?
- Does the metaphor used to describe how God carried the people in Deuteronomy 1:31 speak to you? Why or why not? Can you think of a metaphor that would be more meaningful to you?
- How might Moses' balancing din, judgment, with rachamim, mercy, be a useful model for your life?
- This portion reminds us that words can both heal and hurt. Cite and then discuss some examples that illustrate the power of words.
D'varim, Deuteronomy 1:1–3:22
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,312–1,333; Revised Edition, pp. 1,161–1,173;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 1,037–1,062