PHOTO: Rabbi Dena Feingold of Kenosha at the recently renovated Beth Hillel Temple in Kenosha on May 1, 2018.
During the month of August, we will transition from reading Bemidbar, the Book of Numbers, to Devarim, the Book of Deuteronomy. It is often stated that the last word of each book of the Torah points to the future and to the theme of the next book.
For example, the Book of Numbers ends with the word “Yereicho,” or Jericho, pointing toward the time when the Israelites will cross the Jordan river and come to the Promised Land, Jericho being the first settlement they will encounter in Canaan. Even though we have one book of the Torah left to read, the Israelites are on the precipice of their march into Canaan as Bemidbar comes to an end. Deuteronomy (Second Law), as its Greek/Latin name implies, is really, almost entirely, a repetition of what has gone before, with just a few narratives that move the story forward.
Noting the attention often placed on the last words of each book of the Sefer Torah, we might ask: Is there also some significance to be applied to the first word or phrase in a given book? In this case, the words at the beginning of Deuteronomy, which we will read in the synagogue on August 10, are: “Eleh hadevarim,” “These are the words.”
The phrase does fit the theme of a book filled with Moses’ farewell orations. But, in a way, it is curious because we recall that Moses was impaired by a speech defect or hesitancy of some sort. And now a whole book devoted to Moses’ speeches! The first two words of Devarim point to the importance of these utterances from a man who once told God: “Lo ish devarim anochi,” “I am not a man of words” and who described himself as “ch’vad peh u’ch’vad lashon,” “slow of speech and slow of tongue.” (Ex 4:10)
We do not know if Moses is referring here to a speech impediment (stuttering perhaps?) or a psychological characteristic that affects his speech. Perhaps he had a phobia of speaking in front of a crowd or an important person, or maybe he was simply averse to speaking up when he had something to say; an introvert whose fundamental inclination was to listen rather than to share.
Of course, we know that Moses ultimately rises to the occasion with help from his brother Aaron and does speak to Pharaoh repeatedly to win the release of the Israelits from slavery. He talks with God again on Sinai and mediates between God and the people, often with great passion, throughout the Sinai wanderings. Now, in Devarim, the spigot gets turned on full blast and a torrent of words pour out from Moses, as if he was saving it all up just for this moment. The reticence has disappeared, and, in its place, verbosity and eloquence, even poetry, emerges in the final 34 chapters of the Torah.
In the recent television documentary, shown to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1969 moon landing, it was noted that Neil Armstrong, who famously said: “That’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind,” was an introvert who was not very comfortable or facile with speech. And yet, he chose just the right words for the right moment, words that will never be forgotten. Somehow, the moment and all that it implied transformed him. Something similar must have come over Moses in an even more impressive transition.
Chaim Potok wrote: “I do not begin to understand the mystery of human transformation, the moment when the response of a man to the world about him throws upon his mind a new and wondrous light….” (Wanderings, p. 64,82) We will never fully understand what came over Moses and whether it was a gradual or instant transformation, but the role that he was chosen to play enabled him to overcome his reticent speech and become an orator par excellence, a man of many and very potent “devarim.” Over these next weeks in the synagogue we will have the opportunity to pour over them and derive new meaning from them once again.