Shabbat candles: 7:50 p.m.
Torah: Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22
Haftarah: Isaiah 1:1-27
Parashat Devarim opens with a seemingly innocuous statement: “Eleh ha'devarim… These are the words…”
To set the scene, Moses and all Israel are perched on the border between the desert and the Promised Land, their wandering is over, they’re prepared to enter. Moses takes this opportunity to speak to the people, to give a farewell address, sharing his memories, his understanding of God, along with words of admonition and warning as to how the Israelites need to act in the future in order to retain their position as God’s chosen people in the Land of Israel.
This speech by Moses continues for the duration of the book, leading into Moses’ death. While this seems like an appropriate ending for the Israelites’ time in the desert, and for concluding the Torah, it is quite stunning that this long speech begins with “Eleh ha'devarim… These are the words.” At the beginning of Moses’ career, he attempted to sidestep his choice as leader by telling God “Lo ish devarim anochi,” “I am not a man of words.” How interesting that Moses’ leadership is bracketed by the emphasis on the word devarim — words.
Moses did not simply lead the Israelites through the desert. This period was one of internal growth for him, as well. He was given the opportunity to grow and develop from someone who did not trust in his own voice, to one who was able to deliver a complicated and controversial speech to his community.
This growth can be seen in Moses in several ways. The Moses we see in Exodus has a sense of justice and a desire to help the underdog, but is entirely incapable of speaking up or defending himself. When confronted by a petulant Israelite asking Moses who has made him a leader, all Moses could do is run away. After saving Jethro’s daughters at the well, he is unable to connect with them until Jethro sends them back specifically to bring him home. When God encourages Moses to take a stand to save Israel, he could only respond with fear and attempts at evasion. He does not respond with joy at being able to save his brethren, or with understanding that his role is one that will truly matter.
The Moses in Deuteronomy, however, is one who is willing to plead with God on his own behalf, asking to be allowed to enter the land. Although he was denied this request, Moses’ ability to speak on his own behalf is a sign of growth and strength that he was lacking before his years of leading Israel.
Moses has also grown in his understanding of God and in his ability to see God’s actions playing out in history. In Exodus, Moses displayed fear and concern, a level of insecurity that God’s word would be fulfilled. In Deuteronomy, the mature Moses displays full faith in God and the Divine ability to carry out what was promised. In addition, he calls on others to look at God’s actions in the past and learn God’s faithfulness from them.
Moses has grown, realizing that his words matter. In the movie, “The King’s Speech,” the king’s therapist works to get him to the point where he is be able to shout out, “I have a voice!” Moses, too, has needed getting to the point where he could say and feel the same. He learns that there is great strength in knowing how to use words, which are as important as miraculous acts.
God’s greatest revelation, the Ten Commandments, is described in the Torah as Aseret Ha’devarim, literally, the Ten Words. God has shown Moses that greatness can come in the ability to use words, and to recognize the power and strength in individual words, in the confidence that one’s words make a difference.
As we begin Devarim, this last book of the Torah, let us aim to recognize the gravity and depth in devarim, in words, and to work so that each person is ready to say “I have a voice.”
Dr. Ora Horn Prouser is the executive vice president and academic dean at The Academy for Jewish Religion.