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Isha Bekia

Devarim – Moshe: Man of words?

Jul 27, 2017 | Weekly Parsha


This week’s parsha, Devarim, starts the fifth of the Five Books of the Chumash. The name Devarim literally means “words” and is taken from the first verse in the parsha: “These are the words that Moshe spoke.” As we know, the fifth book of the Chumash is devoted to Moshe Rabbeinu’s speeches, as dictated by Hashem, to be delivered to the people just before they enter the Land of Israel.

It is interesting to note that from our parsha, it seems Moshe was a great orator – “these are the words that Moshe spoke”. But looking back to when G-d first approached Moshe to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt, we find that Moshe did not want to accept the position because, as he said (Exodus 4: 10): “I am not a man of words… for I am heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue.” Moshe argued that he cannot lead the Jewish people because of his speech impediment. G-d answered him: “Who gave man a mouth? Who makes a person mute or deaf? Who gives a person sight or makes him blind? Is it not I – G-d?” G-d then urged him to accept the position, saying: “I will be with your mouth,” and eventually Moshe agreed.

The same word – devarim – is used by Moshe when he was reluctant to accept the position and he said: “I am not a man of words,” as well as in our parshaeileh hadevarim: “These are the words that Moshe spoke,” indicating that indeed he was a man of words. What changed between then and now?

The content and form of communication

In his commentary Oznayim LaTorah, Rav Zalman Sorotzkin explains that there are two aspects to communication: there is the “packaging” – the form and the manner of communication – and then there is the actual content of what is being communicated. When G-d asked Moshe to present the case of the Jewish people to Pharaoh, the manner of communication was crucial; hence Moshe felt he was not qualified for the job, because he did not have the speed of tongue and the eloquence to deliver the message. But subsequently he became a great teacher of Torah. He went up on the mountain and G-d taught him the Torah for forty days and nights, which he then gave over to the people. He is known as Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our Teacher.

Rav Sorotzkin explains that what changed was the content of what Moshe was saying. The Torah he was relaying was so powerful that the fact that he had a speech impediment didn’t matter. The Torah has such wisdom that Moshe had confidence to give it over well. When he was called upon to speak to Pharaoh, he argued that he couldn’t deliver the message effectively. But now, as a teacher of Torah, he was able to do so.

The power of the intangible

There is another dimension to this transformation of Moshe into a “man of words”. The Midrash Rabbah addresses this change in Moshe and quotes from a verse in Proverbs, chapter 15, which says: Marpeh lashon eitz chaim – “The one that heals the tongue is the tree of life.” Eitz Chayim refers to the ultimate tree of life, namely, the Torah. How does the Torah heal the tongue?

In order to understand this, let us first consider the following:

The concept that social gossiping is immoral does not exist in secular society; it’s actually regarded as harmless. Yet within the framework of Torah values, lashon hara is regarded as one of the most serious sins.

The Gemara in Arachin, page 15b, quotes the verse from Proverbs, which says: Hachaim vehamavet beyad halashon, “Life and death are in the hands of the tongue.” The Gemara discusses the phraseology of this idiom, and why the expression “in the hands” in used. Beyad means “dependent on,” but it is unusual that the verse uses another part of the body for this expression; the tongue does not have “hands.” The Gemara explains that the verse uses this particular phraseology in order to juxtapose the hand with the tongue. The Gemara says: ma yad memita, af lashon memita, “in the same way that a hand can strike a lethal blow, so too, the tongue can strike a lethal blow.” We might think that the tongue just utters words while the hand can cause  physical harm, but the Gemara comes to teach us that the tongue is just as capable of inflicting physical harm as the hand is – and even more so: a hand can only strike within a certain range but the tongue can strike even further. The verse in Proverbs goes on to compare the tongue to an arrow, which has a much longer range. The Gemara then goes on to say that even an arrow has a limited range whereas a tongue can strike from one side of the world to the other.

This discrepancy between Torah and secular philosophy regarding lashon hara is really the result of differing world views. The Torah’s world view is spiritual. The fact that the wounds of the tongue are neither tangible nor physical does not mean that they are any less harmful; they can actually be more harmful because the tongue is not constrained by the limitations of the physical world. The hand or the arrow is very much constrained by the physical world, but the tongue, explains the Maharal, is bilti gashmi, meaning it has a power which goes beyond the physical; it is not constrained by the limitations of the physical world and can indeed cause much damage.

From a secular perspective, the world is very much a physical place. According to secular philosophy, the human being is nothing more than a random accumulation of molecules; there is no neshama, no soul, no spirit. The Torah’s perspective is that the human being is a combination of a physical body and a spiritual soul. The neshama is the life force and that is why when a person passes away and the neshama leaves, the body decays, as its life force is gone. The neshama is the dominant power, even though it is not tangible.

This is why there is such a discrepancy on the issue of lashon hara. From a secular perspective, words are intangible and therefore harmless. But from a Torah perspective, words can kill. In the world of speech as in the world of the soul, the spiritual is more powerful than the physical. As we says in Psalms: “Some come with chariots and some with horses, but we – in the Name of Hashem, our G-d, call out.” There is a power in this world that is intangible – the power of Hashem and His values. This is not to say that we don’t need horses and chariots, so to speak. Rather, G-d instructs us that although we live in the physical world, we have to remember that the ultimate power in this world is the spirit.

Words construct reality

Going back to Moshe, when G-d first approached him to lead the people, he said: “I am not a man of words.” And yet we find in our parsha that he is a man of words. The Midrash, quoting from Proverbs, says: “The one that heals the tongue is the tree of life.” The idea that Torah represents the power of the neshama and the spirit in this world is symbolised by the tongue and its inherent power. This is the essence of the Torah – words – and this was Moshe’s transformation. The Midrash is not coming to explain how Moshe overcame his physical impediment of speech. Rather, the Midrash is talking about the transformation of a person who previously said “I am not a man of words” and is now very much a man of words.

Words – the power of speech – is what makes us human. The power of words is not only in the way we talk to people and about people, but in the way we see and construct reality. Speech is what differentiates between human beings and animals. Animals have no mental construction of reality. They are not aware of themselves, nor are they concerned with existential questions – why are we here, what is the purpose of life. They don’t interpret life, they just live it. Human beings interpret life and content with the quintessential existential questions. This is why our sages refer to the human being as “a speaker”, because our ability to speak, to construct reality and understand the world around us, is what makes us human. Through the Torah, Hashem gives us the words for understanding and constructing reality – who we are, why we are here and what is our purpose in life.

This is what eileh hadevarim means. This final book of the Chumash is called Devarim, words, because Hashem’s words in the Torah are what make us human and give us the capacity to live a meaningful life. Words create our world, and this is why G-d created the world with words. As the Mishna in Pirkei Avot says: G-d created the world with ten statements. He chose to create the world with words because words are the key to understanding ourselves and constructing reality. The Torah that G-d gave us contains the words that comprise our reality. This was Moshe’s transformation: he became a man of words. This is the great gift that G-d has given us in the Torah – the words to construct reality, the ability to think about how we live our lives.