David Walk

In His Own Words

Sefer Devarim begins with a great surprise: These are the words of Moshe Rabbeinu! Really!?! Moshe is communicating to us personally through the Torah? That is truly amazing on two levels. First of all (and this is the issue which concerns our Sages the most), the Holy Torah can’t possibly be the words of a mortal man. However, it is the second shocker which intrigues me even more: Isn’t this the person who tried to turn down the gig as Yisrael’s redeemer because of his speech impediment? Issues worth exploring.

Many commentaries on the Torah are shocked by even considering that part of the Torah is not directly from God. I think we all understand the issue. The five books of Moshe (Torah) is very different from the rest of our Tanach. These are the five books dictated by God to Moshe. These are the books where the ubiquitous verse is: And God said to Moshe, saying. The rest of Nach is more famous for: KO AMAR HASHEM (‘thus says God’). That expression generally is understood to mean that the prophet is reporting on his prophetic vision. The message is from God; the exact wording and style is from the prophet.

The position of the Zohar has become very popular: Rav Shimon said: ‘Do you think that Moses said even one small letter by himself? No, it was written with precision. It doesn’t say that Moses said it by himself, rather that it came out of Moshe’s mouth, this was the voice which ‘possessed’ Moshe.’ (Zohar Va’etchanan 265a). 

God put these exact words in Moshe’s throat and they came out of his mouth intact. Some say: The SHECHINA (Divine Presence) was in his throat. This team of authorities are clear that Moshe said nothing on his own.

There is another team. There are those who explain that Moshe never abridged any Mitzvah, God forbid. However, the Ohr Hachaim describes how Moshe as the loyal shepherd never expressed his personal anger and disappointment with the Jewish nation until Sefer Devarim. There are words of MUSAR (chastisement and direction) which really are Moshe’s, but God gave Divine approval to these statements, as a reward for devoted service. There are passages which Moshe initiated, but they all received God’s GUSHPANKA (‘seal of approval’) before entering the Biblical Canon.

It’s the second approach to the problem of Moshe’s DEVARIM, which really intrigues me and introduces, at least for me, the more fascinating aspect of this preamble to the book: These are words which Moshe spoke. What a remarkable turnaround from our first dialogue between Moshe and God at the Burning Bush: But Moshe said to the Eternal, ‘Please, O my Lord, I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue’ (Shmot 4:10).

How did Moshe the stutterer become the eloquent Moshe of Devarim? Well, not everyone believes that he did. Reb Zalman Sorotzkin (1881-1966) explained that Moshe held people’s attention because, ‘This person speaks from the impressive and well known nature of the personality. Then their words are attended to, even if the speaker has a speech impediment, because these are the words of the giant of the age. 

In this fascinating description, Moshe didn’t change; his status in society did. It is a powerful idea that people will listen enraptured to a poor speaker because of his societal stature. Interesting! I don’t know, but I am more inspired by the words of Rav Effie Buchwald:

It is quite significant that the final book of the Torah opens with the words,’These are the DEVARIM which Moshe addressed to all Yisrael.’ It is impossible not to be struck by these words…The “inarticulate” Moses, who insisted that, “I am not a man of Devarim, I am not a man of words,” not only became a man of words, but an entire book of the Torah records his final days as the ultimate “Man of Words.” Through his leadership and his cajoling…Moses was able to transform the mixed multitude of former slaves into a powerful people, who are now free to conquer and settle in the Holy Land. The task of transforming the rebellious people was far more difficult than taking them out of Egypt…The man who said, ”I am not a man of words,” the man who asked, “Did I conceive this entire people, did I give birth to it?,” eventually became the great orator and the thoroughly devoted nursemaid of his people.

Wow! This moving quote is from one of the giants of the Ba’al Teshuva movement. He knows something about people transitioning into new personae. He well understands two realities: 1. Profound change is possible, and 2. It’s very hard!

Many people sincerely want to change, but most fail. The statistics on personality change are a little depressing. It almost makes no difference whether we’re talking about drugs, overeating, alcoholism or other personality changes. Almost all studies show a recidivism rate between 80 and 90%. It’s hard to change. According to research done at Columbia Business School, ‘our brains simply don’t like change’.

This is true of TESHUVA as well. When I worked as a Rabbi and educator in Jewish communities one of the most often asked questions was:Why am I repenting this Yom Kippur for the same things I did last Yom Kippur? Well, because most of us (over 80%) went back and did the same sins all over again.

The Rambam explains that there are 24 categories of things which can prevent us from achieving Teshuva. Yet, it is ultimately true that: Teshuvah atones for all sins. Even a person who was wicked his whole life and repented in his final moments will not be reminded of any aspect of his wickedness as [Ezekiel 33:12] states “the wickedness of the evil one will not cause him to stumble on the day he repents his wickedness (Laws of Teshuva, 1:3).

But Moshe is our poster elder. His life informs us that it is, indeed, very difficult, but ultimately possible to change, grow, develop into a new and better person. His example must inspire us.

Here in the proto-redeemed State of Israel we are tearing the fabric of society to shreds. In this week before Tisha B’Av can we emulate Moshe Rabbeinu and learn to change and grow or will we, God forbid, follow the path of SINAT CHINAM (causeless hatred), which brought down our Holy Temple? It’s hard to reform, but definitely worth it. Let’s develop AHAVAT CHINAM, please.

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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