By Date

Dear Friends,

This week we begin reading Devarim, the fifth and final book of the Torah. As is the naming process of each book of the Torah as well as each portion, the name Devarim, meaning words, comes from the first significant Hebrew word in the book or portion. In this case, both the book and the portion begin,

These are the words that Moses shared with [the community of] Israel on the other side of the Jordan.

In this case, “these words” were Moses’ attempt to reinforce the standards, values, and commitments they had all been struggling to learn since entering the covenant with one another and God at Mount Sinai. Moses already knew how short the people’s memories were. After all, just days after rejoicing at the other side of the Red Sea, hadn’t they lamented the challenging conditions in the Sinai Wilderness? They had experienced a miraculous redemption, and yet, as soon as they faced a shortage of fresh water, they forgot how bad their lives in Egypt had been. They turned on Moses and said,

“If only we had perished when our brothers perished before the Lord! Why then have you brought the Lord’s assembly into this wilderness, for us and our livestock to die here? Why did you make us come up from Egypt, to bring us into this wretched place?”
Numbers 20

Moses feared the people might forget all they had learned since standing together at Sinai. So he took one last opportunity to reinforce the values and commitments that had turned the people from the “mixed multitude” (Exodus 12:38) that had left Egypt into the covenanted community they were working to become. And he did so through the power of words.

The power of speech to create or destroy is a theme that runs throughout our tradition.

In the Book of Genesis we learn that the very building block of creation was speech. (“God said ‘Let there be light and there was light.’” “God said, ‘Let the earth sprout vegetation… and it was so.’”)

In the Talmudic tractate known as Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) we read,

“[The three gravest sins are] idolatry, sexual immorality and murder And evil speech corresponds to all of them [together.]”

And we read in Proverbs 18, “Life and death are in the power of the tongue.”

Moses knew the power of words. He knew they could build up or tear down. He understood their power to lift the soul of another or crush their spirit. And he knew that the words we choose have the power to elevate a conversation and create deep, meaningful connections or bring it, and the relationship between those speaking, to an abrupt end. And he knew, as Pirke Avot also teaches,

“There are three that evil speech kills: the one who speaks it. The one who listens to it and the one they are speaking about.” (1:17)

This week we begin the Book of Words. And there is no better time to remember that the words we choose, whether in conversation, direct electronic communication or on social media, have the power to build or destroy. Let us choose our words wisely and, by so doing, perhaps encourage others to do the same.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Daniel M. Cohen