On the Use, Disuse, and Misuse of Language
Shabbat Devarim/Shabbat Chazon 5776
This shabbat we mark the beginning of a new book of the Torah, sefer Devarim, and the beginning of the end of Moshe's life. The speeches that make up the book of Deuteronomy are an extended farewell offered by Moshe to the people whom he has led, loved, and sometimes loathed over the course of four decades. Though they contain some new directives, the speeches largely serve as a highlight reel of those complicated years, reminding the people of the long road travelled. Parshat Devarim, the opening of this exercise in memory, begins by subtly spotlighting the relationship that got this historical journey going, that between Moshe and the Jewish people, drawing attention to the ways that that relationship itself evolved through the journey.
The parsha begins:
So many years and so many parshiot later, with a linguistic mirror that brings the arc of Moshe's leadership into focus, God's promise is fulfilled and Moshe emerges as a man of words.
How did Moshe get from silence, or stuttering, to speech? Devarim Rabbah 1:1 states:
The bridge to language lay in the Torah, for the right kind of words can actually set the tongue free. Moshe was not incapable of speech at the outset, according to this midrash. He was merely bereft of words worth speaking. With the introduction of Torah that changed and he could finally achieve fluency and fluidity.
Perhaps there is something uniquely magical in the Torah's letters that can radically alter our relationship to language. There are no shortage of mystics who testify to just this phenomenon. Or perhaps, as the Sefat Emet (R. Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter of Ger) argues, it is the content of Torah that has the power to enliven and to unlock language.
We learn to speak--to boldly create and transform--from the book which contains worlds and creates worlds.
The Sefat Emet (in another essay) raises one challenge, though, regarding just how inept Moshe really was at the start of this story. Could it be that he truly did not understand his fitness to the task? In the face of God's direct call, did he really believe that his speech patterns disqualified him? The Gerrer Rebbe thinks not and offers an alternative understanding of Moshe's transformation.
In other words, Moshe's initial impediment was not due to his own inability to speak but to his inability to be heard. He did not resist leading the people on account of a disability. It was the fact that he was already leading them, already bound up with them, that made him see how ineffective he would be without their full buy-in. Their unreadiness to listen made him unwilling to speak.
Moshe's journey toward words, then, was not a move from silence to speech, but from isolation to solidarity, from a ruptured relationship to a repaired one. When the people's openness to hearing met Moshe's openness to speaking, then devarim, words, spilled forth. Indeed, when that unity of leader and the led was reached, it unlocked both the power of the leader and the energy of his followers. A be'er, a wellspring of creativity and devotion, sprung forth.
The Sefat Emet says on these words,
But the Degel Machane Ephraim (R. Moshe Chaim Ephraim of Sudilkov), reflecting on the same well and the same words, warns:
This is the promise and the warning that the final words of Moshe provide. Relationships can be redeemed. Words and waters can flow forth when both parties unlock themselves and open themselves fully to God and one another. But know that silence might return, and rivers might run dry, if channels of communication get compromised.
We always arrive at parshat Devarim on Shabbat Chazon, and this year on Tisha B'Av itself, and one cannot help but hear the cries of destruction (and the hopes for redemption) lurking in the background of this reading. In coming full circle and flowing with devarim, words, Moshe seems to be reminding us of the threat of wordlessness. When people cannot listen, leaders cannot talk, and so often it is not innocent silence that results, but chaotic noise--disbelief, disobedience, destruction. The early years of the relationship between Moshe and the Jewish people were characterized by such a din, and such dysfunction rears its head over and over in history, Jewish and otherwise.
The rabbis characterized the churban as the result of sinful behavior and sinat chinam, baseless hatred. That is, relationships disrespected; language misused; social solidarity broken; inability to talk so that people will listen and listen so that people can be heard. The darkness of Tisha B'Av lays not only in the breakdown of communication between God and human beings, but importantly, in the rupture in communication between people.
Parshat Devarim asks us to consider again the centrality of words--the ability to speak; the willingness to hear; and the importance of keeping communication alive--if we are to rebuild. If we are to gush forth as a people once again.
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