By Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb
With this week’s Torah portion, Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22), we begin a new book: Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Pentateuch. This book differs from the previous four. In the first four books of the Bible, events take place, activities are performed, and stories happen. Not so in Deuteronomy. It is fundamentally one long speech; an exquisitely eloquent address, delivered over a period of 40 days.
Events are described in Deuteronomy, but no event actually takes place in the entire book. That is, until the concluding eight verses which describe the death of Moses. There is no storyline in this book. It consists of words of review, words of rebuke, words of instruction, and words of inspiration.
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 will recall that in the Torah portion of Shemos, Moses at first declined God’s mission, saying, “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: “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 admire, makes the same point: “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? One cannot fully comprehend the unique nature of the book of Deuteronomy and its message unless we answer the question: Why did Moses change?
Rabbi Shaviv points 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 Israelites were finally ready to hear his words and to assimilate his message. Their hearts were now ready to open up and to understand both his words of faith and his words of rebuke. They were now ready to hear the hymn of mitzvot, statutes, and laws.
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. Dialogs do. A speaker’s eloquence depends upon his conviction that someone is listening.
Rabbi Shaviv imparts yet another creative teaching in his essay on this week’s Torah portion. Moses becomes able to deliver his impressive address not only because he finally senses that he had a receptive audience. Rather, 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.” He mistrusted “mere words.”
So serious was his choice of things over words that God considered it a sin deserving tragic punishment. 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 which continue to reverberate eternally for all of us.
Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is the Executive Vice President, Emeritus of the Orthodox Union.