Today, we begin reading the last of the five books of the Torah. Sefer Devarim, the Book of Words. It is a fitting title. Unlike the previous books, there is not much narrative that takes place. The Israelites do not travel. Nobody challenges Moses’ authority, or defies God’s instructions. No idolatrous nation attacks the Israelites. Devarim is just a book of words, speeches. Speeches by Moses, in fact.
This is the only book in which the narrator is Moses himself, speaking in the first person. The other four books are written from the perspective of an unnamed, anonymous third person speaker.
Devarim takes place on the Eastern banks of the Jordan River, in sight of the land of Canaan. Moses is nearly 120 years old. He knows the end is near. This is his final opportunity to prepare the Israelites for what will come next. Sefer Devarim is Moses’ swan song, his “valedictory,” as described by Jeffrey Tigay. But there is mysterious contradiction in the opening of this book.
What do we know about Moses as a person? The Torah describes him as the greatest prophet to ever live. He is the ideal human. Practically perfect in every way.
The Torah specifies just a single flaw in Moses. He identifies it himself, at the very beginning of his career. At the burning bush, when God first appears to Moses and gives him his commission, Moses tries to get out of the job. This is how the Torah describes it:
Moses said to the Lord. Please my Lord, I am not a man of words, neither yesterday nor the day before that, nor ever since Your speaking to Your servant, for heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue am I. (Exodus 4:10)
Lo ish devarim anokhi, “I am not a man of devarim, words.” Now listen to the opening verse of Sefer Devarim, the Book of Words:
These are the words that Moses spoke to all of Israel on the other side of the Jordan, in the wilderness, in the Aravah between Suf and between Paran, and between Tofel and Lavan and Chatzerot and Di Zahav.
Eleh ha-devarim asher diber Moshe, “These are the devarim, the words, that Moses spoke.” Moses, who is not a man of words, has now become one—an incredible feat for someone who is heavy of mouth and tongue. How does he make such a transformation?
A Midrash explains that “when [Moses] became worthy of Torah, his tongue was healed and he began to speak devarim.” The mouth that said “I am not a man of words” at the burning bush is the same one that now fills a book with words. If that is the case, why have we not heard about it until this moment? After all, Moses received the Torah on Mount Sinai nearly forty years earlier. He should have already become a man of words.
In fact, says the fourteenth (1320-1376) century commentator, Nissim ben Reuven of Girona, known as the Ran, Moses was not healed until this moment. The Ran teaches that, until now, Moses had not been an eloquent speaker. This was deliberate, to ensure that everyone knew that whenever he spoke, he was not using his rhetorical skills, his “glib tongue,” to trick them. It could only be that the Shechinah was speaking through him. The content of his words came directly from God. His disability proves his authenticity.
But Sefer Devarim is different. God barely speaks in this book. It is all Moses. For this, rhetoric matters. He needs to speak with eloquence if he is going to convey a message to the children of those who left Egypt. These are people who did not experience first hand the miracles of the plagues, the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, and the revelation at Mount Sinai.
For this task, Moses’ speaking difficulties will be a detriment. That is why God waits until now, the end, to heal him. We might even say that Moses did not become fully worthy of the Torah until this moment.
Verse 5 recapitulates the opening line of the book, “On the other side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, “Moses expounded upon this Torah.” He begins with history. He describes what has happened for the previous forty years, since the Revelation at Sinai. Moses reminds us of the mistakes we made, and encourages us to remain faithful to God. He lists the commandments that we are to follow as covenantal obligations. All with devarim.
This is an important step. The previous books describe God’s revelations to Israel through Moses, as they are happening. Now, Moses must translate those previous revelations for a new generation, in language that they can understand and in terms to which they can relate.
That is the meaning of Devarim. Devarim are not merely words. Words, or language, is merely a tool that we use to transmit ideas to one another. For this, a successful communicator or teacher must always take into consideration the particular needs of the listeners.
This is the transformation that Moses undergoes on the Eastern banks of the Jordan. He expounds upon the Torah to future generations of Israel. Perhaps this is the moment when he earns the title Moshe Rabeinu, Moses our teacher.
Ever since, we have been a people of devarim. What I am delivering right now is called a D’var Torah. A “word of Torah.” It is not merely reading from our sacred text, as the term “word of Torah” might literally imply. The purpose of a D’var Torah is to translate God’s revelation into words that speak to us today, in this moment. That is why, when we publish our chumashim, we typically include commentaries along with the sacred text itself. The text of revelation must be interpreted.
We always read Parashat Devarim on the Shabbat before the fast of Tisha B’Av. This year, today is itself Tisha B’Av, so we push its observance forward by one day. It is a day of memory and mourning. We recall the destructions of the first and second temples, the expulsion from Spain, the fall of the Warsaw Ghetto, and many other tragic events of our people through the millenia.
We remember these events through devarim. The primary devarim that we use is the Book of Eichah, Lamentations. These evocative words were written by Jeremiah to describe the horrible devastation and suffering of our ancestors during the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Babylonians in 586 bce. But the words are crafted so artfully that they could just as easily be describing any of the later tragedies of our people.
It is through devarim that we remember. Each year, we read the same devarim, but they mean something a little different.
Tonight, as we chant Jeremiah’s devarim, we think not only about the tragedies of the past, but also of the present. This year, we have mourned brothers and sisters of the Jewish people who were murdered in Pittsburgh and Poway al kiddush hashem, in sanctification of God’s name. And dozens of other senseless victims taken in the last week in Gilroy, El Paso, and Dayton.
We know how important it is to remember. Memory enables us to make meaning of our lives, and to be better. It is a lesson that we learned from Moshe Rabeinu, who taught us, before we entered the promised land, the importance of remembering the tragedies along with the blessings. Tonight and tomorrow, we will remember the tragedies. May we also remember the blessings.