The end of the Torah is a funny place to start.
A very good place to start would be at the beginning, with the Book of Genesis, which opens with the creation of the world — and the beginning of all things. The Jewish people find their foundation in the Book of Exodus — in the experience of slavery and the redemption from it, God’s Chosen People became a nation. It too seems like a good place to begin an endeavor that you hope will speak to that same nation. Or the Book of Leviticus — a challenging book, to be sure, but its focus on sanctity might encourage piety (and perhaps some Torah learning) in a way that no other book quite does. And what of the Book of Numbers — all those years, the Children of Israel wandered in the wilderness. That was their journey; should we attach ours to theirs?
But no. We begin at the end of the Torah, with the Book of Deuteronomy. It’s a book of profound repetition — the first book of Jewish education, if you will. In it, Moses teaches the “next generation” — the generation that knew not Egypt — of all that had befallen their immediate ancestors. From the Exodus that forged a people to the nitty-gritty details of the laws that create kedushah, holiness, as well as the details of all the encampments of the people along the way — on their journey to this point, standing at the Plains of Moab, on the cusp of taking their peoplehood to the proverbial next level. Those who were never slaves are about to become a free people in their own land, pending territorial conquest, of course. And they need to know about the ethos and heritage that make them who they are.
Which brings us to the first verse of this book, the conversation and teaching that ends the Torah. Deuteronomy opens: “These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel beyond the Jordan; in the wilderness, in the Arabah, over against Suph, between Paran and Tophel, and Laban, and Hazeroth, and Di-zahab.”
“Eleh ha-devarim.” These are the words. Indeed, this is a book of Moses’ words.
Which is fascinating, if you think about it, because Moses has long been known as a man of few words.
He was curious — for he turned aside to see the bush that was not consumed (Exodus 3:3). He was honest, for when God called him, he answered directly, “Here I am” (Exodus 3:4). He was reverent, for he hid his face from God, in fear(Exodus 3:6). He was certainly modest — not only because God Himself proclaimed Moses “more humble than any other person” (Numbers 12:3), but also because when tapped to go lead the Children of Israel out of Egypt, the one who was born to the job demurred: “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and that I should bring forth the Children of Israel out of Egypt?” (Exodus 3:11). But lest you think that Moses was simply shy, or concerned that he would not be believed (and chapter 4 of Exodus suggests that both of those things are true), this humble holy man articulates his reluctance most eloquently: “I am not a man of words (“Ani lo ish devarim”)… for I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue” (Exodus 4:10).
Whether Moses stuttered or had some other speech impediment (as that midrashic mouthful of coal explains) or was not comfortable to speak publicly (a fear known to be more common than the fear of death) or simply felt tongue-tied, and ill-equipped to string words together well, he was quite definite that he was not well-spoken enough to take responsibility for the future of the Children of Israel, before Pharaoh.
Indeed, God accepts his reluctance, but instead of letting Moses off the hook, God reassures his trusted servant, pointing out that just He, God, had created humanity with a mouth, and makes any given person mute or deaf or blind, He would be with Moses’s mouth, and teach him to speak (Exodus 4:12). More, God’s guidance in speech is assuredly prophecy — which should assuage the concerns of any mumbler who thinks he or she won’t choose the best words.
But even the Divine did not appease Moses’ concerns. He insisted on an assistant to do his talking for him, God granted him his brother Aaron as a spokesperson, and the rest is biblical history.
Except for one thing.
God really did teach Moses to speak.
The proof of it is that first verse in Deuteronomy. And all the rest of the Book of Deuteronomy. Which is to say — these words that Moses spoke to all the Children of Israel, as they stood almost ready to embark on their new adventures as a people with a land, in the Land of Israel. The person who had described himself as lacking the ability to speak had become the embodiment of shared words and speech. He was no longer reluctant. The time came for Moses to convey to the entire rising generation what their role and responsibility was to be — and he met that challenge without hesitation. He was ready to speak, with the Torah at his fingertips, and he had important things to convey.
And this is the beginning, at the end of the Torah, that matters today. For with this post, we — the Orthodox Leadership Project and Chochmat Nashim — are launching an initiative to increase the participation of women in the broader discussion of Torah, beginning with the words of the Book of Deuteronomy. In this day and age, many of us know the words, and we are well able to share them in bringing God’s messages to the Jewish people. We have access to Torah learning and scholarship, we are ready to speak, and we have important things to convey. God has shared with us the ability to create, think, and express our own “devarim” — and we know that the people are ready to hear them as well.
Please learn with us, as we embark on enhancing the Torah experience of our entire community.
This post was co-authored by Anne Gordon, co-founder of Chochmat Nashim.