Words About Words (D'varim)

If you'll indulge me in a bit of self-reference, I'm going to use my words tonight to talk about words.

God speaks the world into existence. Adam names all of the animals, thereby asserting both domination and responsibility. Each of us has the power of speech in which we can create or destroy. As you may remember from an earlier portion, the physical disease of tzara'at, leprosy, is thought to be a physical manifestation of inappropriate speech.

I'm reading a book now called Jews and Words. It's co-authored by the famous Israeli author Amos Oz along with his daughter. They wax poetically about the Jewish obsession with words. The authors argue that words are the glue that hold the Jewish people together. After all, we are the people of the book.

And speaking of books, on this Shabbat we start the fifth book of the Torah, Deuteronomy. It is perhaps the most intriguing book of the Torah. It's unlike the other four books. In Genesis and Exodus, we learn about the chronology of our ancestors. In Leviticus and Numbers we learn hundreds of mitzvot as we journey on a 40-year trek through history, war, confrontation and God's continual presence until finally we arrive at the cusp of the promised land, waiting excitedly to enter the land of milk and honey promised to Abraham way back toward the beginning of another set of words in Genesis.

Deuteronomy is so interesting because there's not much that actually happens. There are very few events, stories or conversations. It's only at the very end of the book that a significant event takes place - the death of Moses.

Deuteronomy comes from the Greek word deuteronomion, meaning "second law." The vast majority of this final book consists of Moses speaking to the Israelites, recounting their history, their achievements, their battles and their covenant with God. It's a history, reviewing the past before taking that first step into the promised land. Thus, Deuteronomy is a kind of second law. And in Hebrew, the book is named D'varim, meaning ... "words."


One of my favorite movies is the comedy, Airplane! It's not the most highbrow film in the world, but one of its funniest bits helps to explain Deuteronomy.

In the movie, an airplane's crew and most passengers have gotten food poisoning from the airline food. Down on the ground, air control is trying to get a grasp of the situation. The person in charge, Steve McCroskey, has just arrived to the station and he's trying to figure out everything that's happened so that he'll have the requisite background information. He says, Tell me everything that's happened up until this point. Trying to answer his question, his subordinate responds, First the earth cooled, then came the dinosaurs but they got too big and fat, died and turned into oil. He goes on and on until McCroskey stops listening, frustrated that the question was not properly answered.


This same statement is the implicit basis for the whole of Deuteronmomy: Tell us everything that's happened up until this point. What makes Deuteronomy so fascinating is that the book is not from an omniscient narrator; it's from Moses. Moses recaps the history, but as they are Moses' words, they reflect Moses' perceptions and memories. Moses chooses to leave some things out, while emphasizing other events more. Moving from the raucous comedy of Airplane! to a film with just a bit more cultural heft, Roshomon, is a movie known for a plot device involving various characters providing alternate versions of the same incident. It shows us that we can experience the same event, but each of us might recall it with surprising diversity and discrepancy.

The first four books of the Torah reflect an omniscient author. But the majority of Deuteronomy reflects only Moses' point of view. Deuteronomy is Moses' answer to: Tell us everything that's happened up until this point. But this book is not the only answer ... Deuteronomy is a second telling, it is not a re-telling. This difference is exceptionally important.


Many of you may know of the game "telephone." If we were playing, I'd whisper something to you, and you'd whisper the exact same thing to your neighbor. This would continue until the last person in the room was told the story. Then, the first person and the last stand up and recapitulate what they were told. More often than not, the stories are completely different.

And so it is with Deuteronomy. My favorite example occurs in chapter 5 of Deuteronomy, when Moses goes over the Ten Commandments. Except these commandments are not the exact same as the ones God spoke in Exodus! Instead of Honor the Sabbath Day, we have Remember the Sabbath day. Interestingly, the very basis of the Sabbath is completely different! If we hearken back to the creation story as well as the original Ten Commandments uttered by God, Shabbat exists so that we can practice Imatatio Dei, the imitation of God. After 6 days of creation, God rests to appreciate what God had done, and to reflect. And so, we too rest after the sixth day, to remind ourselves not only of our creations, but to reflect on God's amazing creation.

But here in Deuteronomy, it seems as if Moses has become a historical revisionist. In talking about this 5th commandment, there's not even a single reference that alludes to God resting on the Sabbath. Instead, here is what the Deuteronomical version has to say about Shabbat:

Remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and that God brought you from there with a mighty hand and with a stretched out arm; therefore God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.


D'varim. Words.

I like to think that this book of Deuteronomy gives us insight into the Jewish power of words. It reminds us that this so-called "second law" is not the final law, but the second. There is a third law, and a fourth, and so on ... These are written by our words, by our interpretations, by our experiences and passions and insights and memories and thoughts.

To conclude this sermon - these words about words - I ask you to reflect on your Deuteronomy, on your words. The question is not just for Moses, it's for you as well: Tell us everything that's happened until now.

Listening to the Sh'ma (V'etchanan)

Sometimes We Have to Listen to a Donkey (Balak)