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More than words

More than words

Devarim — Numbers 1:1-3:22

July 24: 8:01 p.m.

I have kept my time-worn copy of Roget’s Thesaurus in my personal library since I was in the seventh grade. It was given to me by my teacher who introduced me to the beauty of language and taught me to use this thesaurus in order to use language effectively and with precision.

There are those who scoff at words, deeming them to be much weaker than concrete objects. Life has taught me, however, that these individuals are very wrong. Words are important not just in the social world, but have influence and impact upon the physical world as well.

With this week’s Torah portion, Devarim (“Words”), we begin an entirely new book: Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Pentateuch. This book differs from the previous four in many ways. In the first four books, events take place, activities are performed, and stories happen. Deuteronomy is fundamentally one long speech — an exquisitely eloquent address, delivered over a period of 40 days and consisting of words of review, rebuke, instruction, and inspiration. Only the concluding eight verses describe the death of Moses.

What is most astounding about this book-length address is that it is given by Moses, who, by his own admission, was not a man of words. You certainly will recall that it was in the Torah portion of Shemot that Moses at first declined God’s mission to be the one to deliver the Jewish people from Egypt. He said, “Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of words … I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” (Exodus 4:10)

Our Torah portion begins, “These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel…” Our Sages in the Midrash find this phenomenon remarkable. Say the rabbis in the Midrash, “Yesterday he said, ‘I am not a man of words,’ and today he says, ‘These are the words?!’ … Rabbi Elazar put it this way: ‘Yesterday he was a pasilus [a Greek word meaning a person with a severe speech defect], and now he proclaims, ‘These are the words!’”

A contemporary rabbi, Yehuda Shaviv, whose work “MiSinai Ba” I so admire, makes the same point using different words: “This talent of Moses is a wondrous one. He, who began his leadership career so convinced that he was inarticulate that he depended upon his brother Aaron to be the spokesman able to convey his ideas to his audience, has now become, as his days are waning, a facile and persuasive speaker.”

How are we to understand this transformation? Shaviv begins by pointing out that Moses led his people for 40 years but spoke to them more in the last 40 days of his life than he did for the entire duration of his leadership.

He argues that we must postulate that Moses only now began to sense that the ears of the
Israelites were at last receptive. Their hearts were now ready to open up and to understand both his words of faith and his words of rebuke.

There is a very important lesson here. Language requires a relationship in order to be effective. Much depends upon the speaker, but the speaker must have a listener. Monologues do not communicate; dialogues do. A speaker’s eloquence depends upon his conviction that someone is listening.

Shaviv proceeds to impart yet another creative teaching in his essay: Moses becomes able to deliver his impressive address not only because he finally senses that he had a receptive audience. He can do so also because he has finally overcome his mistrust of “mere words.”

Remember the tragedy of Moses’ life, and remember the sin for which he was punished. The Almighty instructed him, when the people complained of thirst, to speak to the rock from which water would then flow. God instructed him to use “mere words.”

But instead, Moses struck the rock with his staff. He only trusted a concrete object, a “real thing.” So serious was his choice of things over words that God considered it an unforgivable flaw. He, therefore, deprived Moses of achieving his most precious dream: entering the Promised Land.

The entire Book of Deuteronomy is evidence that Moses learned his lesson well. He may have failed to use words to draw water from the rock, but he succeeded gloriously in using words to inspire his people, words that continue to reverberate eternally for all of us.

Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union.

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