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Monday, August 15, 2011


Dvar Torah For Parshat Dvarim//Shabbat Hazon 5771.
אלה הדברים אשר דבר משה אל כל ישראל

“These are the words that Moses spoke to all of Israel…”

Thus begins this morning’s Torah portion, the Book of Deuteronomy, and the great, eloquent speech that Moses presents to the people just as they are about to leave the desert and their past lives as slaves, in preparation for entry into the promised land. In her introduction, Rabbi Kieval pointed out the significance of Moses opening Deuteronomy with his speech, for we have known him throughout the Torah as a stutterer, who is slow of speech, and in need of his brother, Aaron, to be his mouthpiece. Moses has grown over the forty years of Israelite wandering, and the Torah emphasizes this as he is preparing to die.

What is also significant is that Moses –not God- is the focal point of this opening verse of Deuteronomy. Moses, the humblest man upon the earth, whose burial site is not even known and who is never even mentioned in the Haggadah that retells the Passover story, is at the center of Deuteronomy’s drama of entering Canaan, and as a preacher no less! The opening sermon in Deuteronomy Rabbah, an early collection of rabbinic homilies on this book of the Torah, also makes Moses the focus of Deuteronomy for a very important reason. After explaining some rules concerning whether or not a Torah scroll may be written in translation, the rabbi giving the dvar Torah weaves together an intricate set of proof verses and word associations to prove that the words of Torah can cure speech impediments, and that in fact they cured Moses’ problems with speech. How do we know, the homilist asks? Before receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai, when he stood before God at the burning bush, Moses begged off his mission to Pharaoh by telling God, “I am not a man of word…I am slow of speech.” Here, on the borders of the promised land, forty years after receiving and teaching the Torah, Moses the law giver has also become Moses the eloquent speaker who prepares the people before his death.

In this opening passage of Deuteronomy Rabbah, we find God personally testifying that God’s gift of Torah is so precious because it cures the tongue of its maladies. Our sages were referring specifically to the actual disorders of speech, such as that of Moses who was miraculously healed and turned into a great public speaker. However, I cannot help hearing the other morally weighty meaning of these words that they would have intended: engagement with Torah heals us of the sickness of Lashon Harah, the evil speech of gossip and slander that destroys people, relationships, and communities. It is obvious that Torah does this by teaching us the rules of civility and moral self restraint, by forcing us to focus our words and speech on holy matters, and not garbage, and by allowing us to learn the value of carefully measured, well thought out words. Certainly, the sages of the Talmud understood that the life of Torah study could actually result in dangerous uses of speech, because heated debate over matters of Torah sometimes has a way of degenerating into name calling and public humiliation. However, they more often exemplified in their lives the value of Torah as a path to healing and peace through its harnessing of human speech for good purposes.

How significant, then, that evil speech is at the center of the most famous story about why Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, a tragic event that occurred on the ninth day of Av, which we will commemorate on Monday night and Tuesday. An enemy of one of the notables of Jerusalem was mistakenly invited to the man’s home for a party. The host roundly humiliated the man who had shown up, thinking that they were to be reconciled. As he threw the man out of his home, the rabbis of the community who were at the party passively watched the scene and did nothing to stop it. Wounded by such despicable behavior on the part of his enemies and the rabbis, the man went to the Roman authorities and slandered them, claiming that they were plotting a rebellion. The emperor marched on Jerusalem and destroyed our holy Temple. As actual history, the story has little merit. As a moral object lesson it is brilliant. In his book analyzing great rabbinic stories, my colleague, Professor Jeffrey Rubenstein, argues that this story is a good example of rabbinic self-criticism. The sages of a later time are criticizing their own class for failure to heed the words of Torah by doing the right thing: defending a humiliated person who has been wounded by words and working decisively to stave off disaster. I also see in this passage its more obvious message: words used in acts of senseless hatred have genuine ripple-effect potential to destroy an entire community. Like a caustic chemical, they corrode the life of our community from the inside, so that enemies from without have only to show up at our doors and easily finish us off. This is a moral message that we learn in the Torah, and it is a truth that underlies a good deal of ancient and contemporary history.

The poet Emily Dickinson once wrote: A word is dead//When it is said//Some say.//I say it just//Begins to live//That day. She was talking about the power of poetry, but she likely also was referring to the power of words in general. On this Shabbat Hazon, the Shabbat preceding Tisha B’Av, let’s allow ourselves some quiet moments to think about how words come alive in our own lives, from our own mouths, as forces for healing and destruction. Let’s also recommit ourselves in the midst of this period of deep sadness to a life engaged with the words of Torah, words that can heal our tongues and harness our speech for good and holy purposes.

Shabbat shalom.

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