In the very first line of Parashat D’varim we read:
“These are the words (d’varim) that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan…” (Deuteronomy 1:1)
And so, with this statement, we begin again.
Having reached the end of our wandering last week at the end of the Book of Numbers, our ancient Israelite ancestors are anxiously perched on the steppes of Moab. The Promised Land is in view. We are poised to fulfill our covenantal destiny. But not yet… At this moment, Moses interrupts our dramatic conclusion with words — d’varim; a portion full of words, in fact, a whole book of words. For here we begin Seifer D’varim, the Book of Deuteronomy — a series of discourses, revisions, and reminders. These are Moses’ last great speeches to a people that he has led and loved, served and shaped, advocated for and admonished.
Parashat D’varim consists mostly of Moses’ historical review of events from the end of the Revelation at Sinai through most of the Israelites’ journey in the desert. Having just reached the end of our wandering, we begin it again through words.
We know that the concept of retelling and reliving through words is core to our Jewish tradition. From the commandment to explicate the Exodus from Egypt — “And you shall explain to your child on that day, ‘It is because of what the Eternal did for me when I went free from Egypt,' ” (Ex. 13:8) — to the holy instructions waiting for us in next week’s Torah portion — “recite them [these instructions, d’varim] when you stay at home and when you are away,” (Deut.6:7), we are a people of words.
But how many words are too many? When do words divert, obscure, or diminish the moment as opposed to clarifying it?
As modern readers, we are aware of the frequent inadequacy of words. Shakespeare himself famously and ironically hinted at the worthlessness of words in his masterpiece of language, Hamlet, as we read:
LORD POLONIUS: I’ll speak to him [Hamlet] again. — What do you read, my lord?
HAMLET: Words, words, words. (Shakespeare, “Hamlet,” 2.2.204-205)
Shakespeare’s repetition of “words” in this interchange is meant to highlight the triviality of language: words are just silliness, Hamlet insinuates, nothing substantial.
If words and retelling can be both vital and futile, how can we find the balance? Three moments in this week’s Torah portion guide us toward an answer. In three carefully constructed phrases, in the midst of Moses’ grand verbal endeavor, Moses himself hints at the limitation of words, the insufficiency of repetition, and the main motive behind the many declarations.
Deuteronomy 1:6 — “You have stayed long enough at this mountain.”
Moses begins his historical review with the following words:
“The Eternal our God spoke to us at Horeb, saying: ‘You have stayed long enough at this mountain ...’” (Deut. 1:6)
In Hebrew, the construction is particular and poetic: “rav lachem shevet bahar hazeh.”
The natural question is, what were the Israelites doing at the mountain? The simple answer: receiving Revelation. Moses begins his historical review at the moment God’s full Revelation at Sinai concludes, using Horeb and Sinai interchangeably as is often the case in the Book of Deuteronomy. Therefore, the very first words that Moses shares with the Israelites are a quotation from God essentially saying, “You have heard enough words.”
Midrash Tanchuma expands upon this idea:
R. Abba bar Aha said: The student sits before his master. When he is finished, the student says to the master: How I have tired you! But Israel was learning from the Holy One. When they are departing, He says to them: How I have tired you! It is so stated (Deuteronomy 1:6): The Lord our God spoke to us in Horeb, saying: you have sat long enough at this mountain. (Midrash Tanchuma, Buber, B’reishit 4:1)
Here, the midrash picks up on both the general understanding that Israelites were receiving the Torah from God and the very verb that Moses uses in his statement — shevet, “sit” or “stay.” The midrash envisions the Israelites sitting and learning Torah from God, as students learn from their master.
How comfortable, how safe it is for each of us to imagine sitting still and hearing God’s words forever? Enough, Moses tells us. Rav lachem shevet bahar hazeh -- You have sat and heard words long enough.
Deuteronomy 2:3 — “You have been skirting this hill country long enough.”
At the beginning of the next chapter, after recounting the incident with the scouts and the Israelites’ punishment to wander, Moses again charges the Israelites:
“Then the Eternal One said to me: ‘You have been skirting this hill country long enough.” (Deut. 2:2-3)
Here, the Hebrew parallels the first construction exactly, but with a different verb: “rav lachem sov et hahar hazeh.”
While the translation in The Torah: A Modern Commentary, rev. ed., chooses “skirting,” the Hebrew word sov can also mean “circling” or “spinning.” In fact, the medieval Hebrew grammarian, Eliyahu Bachur, connects this phrase to several other biblical verses in order to clarify its meaning:
“Walk around Zion, circle it; count its towers!” (Psalms 48:13)
“Take a lyre, go around the town …” (Isaiah 23:16) (Sefer HaBachur, Second Treatise, 11:7)
Both of these verses emphasize sov as circling, going around and around. Even the Torah trope (the musical notation) for this phrase highlights the circular meaning, as the words rav lachem are chanted with a zakef gadol, a cantillation mark that moves the voice up and then back down again in almost a complete musical circle.
The direct meaning of our verse from Deuteronomy — “you have been skirting the hill country too long” — is clear. The wandering is over; It’s time to head to the Promised Land. However, read in connection with our first phrase, a different meaning emerges.
If the phrase in Deuteronomy 1:6 above teaches us that sometimes we have heard enough words, here Moses reminds us that at certain moments, we have circled enough. We have retold and reanalyzed and reinterpreted enough. Rav lachem sov et hahar hazeh — too long have you circled.
Deuteronomy 2:13 — “Up now! Cross the Wadi Zered!”
So where to do we go from here? If we have heard enough words and repeated enough retellings, what is left to do?
The answer comes a few verses later with a rather abrupt imperative:
"Up now! Cross the Wadi Zered!" (Deut. 2:13)
While the direction and place are specific to the narrative of the Israelites at that moment in the story, the two verbs at the beginning of the phrase stand out dramatically against the backdrop of our two earlier verses:
Rav lachem shevet — too long have you sat
Rav lachem sov — too long have you circled
Kumu v’ivru lachem — Get up! Move yourselves!
Here, Moses imbeds his main message. While words and repetitions have their time and place, they must eventually lead to action and change. Just words, just reiterations are not sufficient. We must use their great and clarifying power to literally and figuratively move ourselves forward to the next stage of our journey.
“These are the words” (Deut. 1:1). Cantor Sacks’ words about words raise the question: what good is all this talking — or reading, writing, thinking, reciting, chanting, praying, and studying — anyway? Does it amount to anything other than a delay of action? Moses himself says: Rav lachem, “You have stayed too long” — it’s too much! (Deut. 1:6, 2:3). At a Passover seder, we might say “dayeinu!” Get to the meal already!
It’s true that we can talk ourselves blue in the face before we get around to taking action, and that words unfulfilled in action can become an empty shell. But actions without words — actions out of impulse, actions out of emotion, actions without meaning — also cause us to go around and around in circles. Words of Torah, however, are never a repetition for repetition’s sake.
Just look to Moses for a perfect example. The 19th-century rabbi, Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, known as the S’fat Emet, points out that Moses’ journey from man-of-action and killer-of-taskmasters (Ex. 2:11-12) to prophet of God’s Torah is bookended by the phrases “I am not a man of words,” Lo ish d’varim anochi (Ex. 4:10),and — in our parashah, D’varim, “These are the words,” Eileh had’varim, (Deut. 1:1). Where Moses couldn’t use his words before, now he can’t stop, repeating and clarifying words of Torah for a new generation. The S’fat Emet writes about Moses’ repetition:
“This is the entire point of the Book of Deuteronomy, which repeated the Torah just as it was received [at Sinai] by Israel: [to teach that] all the words of the Torah have no measure to their holiness.”
(S’fat Emet, D’varim 1, siman 3)
Just as there are some deeds, like giving tzedakah, which have no measure — that is, no point at which we have finally fulfilled our obligation and can stop — so too, words of Torah have no measure. Their repetition is not a delay of action but a crucial deed, one whose work is never done.
That’s because words are the principal instrument with which we construct reality. We experience everything through the filter of words: words we tell ourselves, words we tell each other, and especially, words we tell our children. The Torah accords to words the power of creation (“God said: ‘Let there be light,’” Gen. 1:3). With such awesome power comes a responsibility to take care with our words. We do that by repeating some words and minimizing others. Not all words are equal. As Cantor Sacks points out, some words are trivial nonsense; we must add that some are “cheap rhetoric,” and some are vile slurs. Even Shakespeare’s ingenious words do not quite measure up to the awesome responsibility of constructing a sacred reality. But that is precisely the purpose of words of Torah.
Parashat D’varim begins by emphasizing: Eileh had’varim, “These are the words” (Deut. 1:1). That is, these words specifically, words Moshe Rabbeinu employed when he “undertook to expound this teaching,” (Deut. 1:5). With these words; these and not other ones, Moses made clear the meaning of this Torah; this one, and not another one.
The text implies a tension between “these words,” and “this Torah;” since if “this Torah” was received at Sinai already, why do we need “these words” of repetition and clarification to construct a sacred reality? This tension sparked a debate between the medieval Torah commentaries of Nachmanides (1194-1270) and Abarbanel (1437-1508). Nachmanides insists that Deuteronomy contains a new teaching, a second Revelation for the generation born in the wilderness, and that “these are the words” means “the new words” that had not yet been revealed. Abarbanel, on the other hand, focuses on the elucidation of “this Torah” and claims that Deuteronomy is not the giving of a new set of laws or revelations, but the construction of a commentary on those already implied in the earlier Revelation at Sinai.
Our Sages are each correct, in their own ways: in his 30-day teaching in the land of Moab, across the Jordan, Moses uses his words to construct a new world, fitting the new reality of a people on the verge of returning to their land, reclaiming their freedom from slavery and idolatry, and for the first time, building a civilization organized around the sacred. Addressing such a new reality requires a whole new set of words. And yet, the text insists, Moses’ lecture here is not a new teaching, but “this Torah;” the same Torah given at Sinai, the Torah that stood for Israel over the course of the forty years’ journey from Egypt (Eretz Mitzrayim) to the Land of Israel (Eretz Yisrael). In upholding the tension between the new reality of these words and the ancient wisdom of this Torah, we find the secret strength of Israel: the ability to adapt to new realities and to articulate the experience of every successive generation while simultaneously upholding that which guided us through the past. Inherent in this process is the unfolding of Torah — in action, certainly, but also in words, words, and still more 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
Third Haftarah of Affliction, Isaiah 1:1–27
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,590–1,594, Revised Edition, pp. 1,180–1,183