D'varim (August 6, 2011)
(1) These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan. — Through the wilderness, in the Arabah near Suph, between Paran and Tophel, Laban, Hazeroth and Di-zahab.
Excerpted from The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition, editor W. Gunther Plaut (NY: URJ Press, 2005). Used by permission of URJ Press, www.urjbooksandmusic.com.
That the Torah concludes with a long speech should not surprise us. The Torah literally ends as it began. Genesis opens with Divine utterances, “And God said, Let there be light,” and Deuteronomy starts with the words of Moses. The parchment of the Torah creates a circle in which the words of God and humanity intermingle. It is in our capacity to comprehend and articulate a message or in our capacity to build or injure through language that the Divine and the human overlap.
The power of words is beautifully coined by Maimonides in his legal work The Mishneh Torah (Chapter 2:4). He explains:
One must not make a habit of using flattering speech…One must not say one thing and mean another, but…we should express in words of mouth only what we have in mind. We must not deceive people — One must not urge another to join him at a meal though aware that the invitation will not be accepted. One must not overwhelm his guest with offers, knowing that he will not accept. Even a single word of deception is forbidden.
We are accustomed to regard words as a means of communication. Language is considered to be a tool for our goals. Differently, the Torah teaches that language not only describes but that it also constructs or annihilates. In fact, words, having been uttered by God to create the universe, precede humanity. Humans must use language with the utmost care considering that, more than using language, they have borrowed it from a sacred domain.
It is told that the great modern theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel once was asked how he prayed the Amidah, to which he answered, “With the same care I write a check!” In the Chasidic tradition, Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav expressed this idea beautifully in the following parable:
The worshiper must direct his heart to each and every word. He is like a person who walks in a garden collecting roses and rare flowers, plucking them one by one, in order to weave a garland. So the worshiper moves from letter to letter from word to word. (Likkute Maharan, Part I, Chapter 65, p. 80c)
It is ironic that Moses, who rejected the Divine call because he was “not a man of words,” ends his journey with the longest speech in the Torah. The Torah appears to whisper to us that, like Moses, we can overcome our deficiencies and achieve our full potential, that each one of us can become a partner in creation by committing to our words and to our pledges. As we enter the gates of D’varim, we are summoned to be receptive listeners and to bring decency and holiness through the power of language.
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