20/21 July: Shabbat Devarim comes in 8:52 pm, ends 10:05 pm
This week we begin the book of Devarim. The Sages note that the same Moshe who protested to God that “I am not a man of words” (Ex. 4:10) produces a flood of words in this final book of the Torah, whose Hebrew name means, after all, “words.”
Midrash Devarim Rabbah compares this to a trader selling fine crimson, who proclaims his wares, but when the king asks him what he is selling, he replies, “nothing at all ! ”. The king replies, “I heard your voice calling, ‘fine crimson!’ and you tell me you are selling nothing at all ?” The trader replies, “My lord! Yes, it is fine crimson, but to you it is worth nothing ”; the midrash concludes, “So it was with Moshe — before the (King) Holy One of Blessing who created the mouth and speech — Moshe said ‘I am not a man of words,’ but in regard to speaking to Israel, it is written of him, ‘These are the words’.”
The Sages of our tradition focus on Moshe’s willingness to speak hard truths to his people. He does not give them a sugar-coated, heroic narrative of their past and future. He wants the people’s story of itself to be one that is willing to acknowledge error, and to do teshuvah, repentance and re-evaluation of themselves. The Sages noted that the Book of Numbers ends with the words, “These are the mitzvot … that God commanded through Moshe to the Israelites” (Num. 36:13), and that Deuteronomy begins with “These are the words that Moshe spoke…” (Deut. 1:1). They said, “Why is the one matter brought up next to the other? So God says, the words of Moshe that admonish Israel are as dear to me as all the mitzvot that I gave them” (Midrash Yelamdenu).
It is most appropriate that we read the Book of Deuteronomy over the period leading up to the High Holidays: it helps us to focus on our own process of self-evaluation and teshuvah.
Written by Rabbi Paul Arberman