When a bush aflame with a divine summons called Moses to the redemptive task, he tried to decline the charge with this demurral: "Please, O God, I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now that you have spoken to Your servant..." (Exod. 4:10) Forty years later, as the journey ends and his career concludes, Moses eloquently epitomizes a man of substantive words, a wise and insightful teacher.
This Shabbat's parashah, as well as the entire fifth book of the Torah, is called "Words," Devarim. The parashah comprises the first part of Moses' prologue, continued in next week's portion, to his final teachings to the Israelites. Moses employs the power of words in four distinct ways: to bridge time, to engender self-esteem, to affirm commitments, and to encourage.
The audience Moses addresses is the generation born in freedom in the wilderness. Moses speaks to them as though they themselves had committed the faithless deeds and had expressed the doubts for which their parents perished in the desert. By speaking of the past as thought the present listeners shared in it, the words of Moses blur time and history. He uses words to erase generational boundaries as a warning that children are recipients of parental legacies. Moses' recounting implies the need for vigilance and reminds that teshuvah for parents' failure required different attitudes and deeds from their children.
Moses does not dwell only upon the people's shortcomings. He is proud of their enlarged numbers and publicly prays that God increase them a thousand-fold. We are thus reminded that warnings and chastisements can have productive results when those who are to hear are first assured of their innate worth. Even as little as one sentence of affirmation by a parent, a teacher, or a leader can lift a head and strengthen resolve.
When success multiplies, it can make us forget, like heady wine, venerable prior commitments. The Israelites had promised God not to attack Edom, Moab, and Ammon-nations descended from the family of Abraham. Moses reminds Israel of this with words of restraint just when their armies are poised to sweep up everything in their path.
Even as Moses restrains his fighting force with words, he also uses words to encourage. On the eve of battle, courage and cowardice themselves struggle within each warrior. Thus, Moses reminds Israel how she recently defeated Sihon and Og, kings of Heshbon and Bashan. The obvious conclusion the soldiers of Israel must reach is that with God's help, they will succeed in conquering Canaan as valiantly as they took the lands east of the Jordan.
Devarim, "words," are our share in the divine power to create or to devastate. With words we shape reality, construct meaning, and frame hope. Heschel reminds us, "We shall never be able to understand that the spirit is revealed in the form of words unless we discover the vital truth that speech has power, that words are commitments." (Man's Quest for God, A.J. Heschel, p. 25) Sefer Devarim calls us to be ever mindful of the words we shape that, in turn, shape our world.
Rabbi Citrin writes that "devarim, words, are our share in the divine power to create or to devastate." We need look no further than the story of creation to understand the power our tradition gives to words. The world was not created through a physical act but simply through verbal expression. Similarly, through our words we create worlds, giving life to ideas and perceptions. Through our words we can also destroy worlds, giving life to half-truths and false perceptions. Once words have left our mouths, their power to create or destroy has been unleashed and can never be retrieved.
Parashat Devarim is always read on the Shabbat prior to Tishah Be'av, and reminds us of the power of words. Tishah Be'av commemorates, among other events, the destruction of the Second Temple. The Talmud (Gittin 58a) instructs us that this Temple was destroyed as a result of the unwarranted hatred of one Jew toward another. Given the tension between the various branches of Judaism in both America and Israel recently, it is not too hard to imagine the venomous words that might have issued forth from the mouth of one Jew toward another. And regardless of our perspective on whether the destruction of the Temple should be lamented, we can certainly understand the destructive power of such hatred. As Jews around the world gather both spiritually and physically at the Western Wall, may the words we read remind us not only of our tragic past but also serve as a reminder of the power of our mouths to turn the words of the Book of Lamentations into a horrifying prophecy of our future: "Alas, how solitary the city sits that was full of people."
In the Book of Proverbs we read, "Pleasant words are as a honeycomb, sweet to the soul, and health to the bones." (16:24) Let us turn words of lamentation into words of healing.
Some ideas for discussion:
- Look at Moses' speech in this parashah. How would you have responded?
- Pretend that you are Moses. What would you say to the Israelites?
- Tell about a time when your own words were a source of destruction and of creation.
- How should we respond to words of chastisement, anger, and hatred?
- By what words do you want to be remembered?
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