Parshat Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22)
Rabbi David Stav
Devarim is the name shared by both the last of the five books of Moses, and the first portion of this book, and the name “Devarim” relates to the words spoken by Moshe before he passed away in Arvot Moav, on the borders of the eastern part of the Land of Israel. The entire book remains true to its name. The vast majority of its content is a summary of what Moshe said to the people of Israel approximately one month before his passing.
The book’s events begin on the first of the month of Shvat, and end on the seventh of the month of Adar, a period of thirty-seven days. Naturally, when we study Moshe’s speeches, we remember that this is the same Moshe who, when appointed to his position, said:
“I am not a man of words, I was not one yesterday nor the day before it… for I am heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue.”
(Shemot / Exodus 4:10)
Now, however, he is delivering speeches that would impress the greatest masters of rhetoric. The discrepancy between the man who needed Aharon, his brother, to act as an intermediary between himself and the nation (as God Himself said: “and Aharon, your brother, shall be your prophet” (Shemot / Exodus 7:1), and the leader who delivers ground-shattering speeches prompts readers to wonder how such a wonderful transformation occurred in the first place.
Some wished to interpret Moshe’s humble statement as a declaration that he didn’t have the talent necessary for speaking in front of kings and ministers, and after all, this was his first task: to convince Pharaoh to release the Jewish People from Egypt. He never thought he couldn’t hold a meaningful dialog with the public.
However, this interpretation is inconsistent with the words that Moshe, himself, used: “for I am heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue”. We would be hard-pressed to see this statement as merely a relative difficulty in managing diplomatic conflicts with kings and statesmen. However, if we look at the Midrash, we’ll discover some other explanations offered by our rabbis. They taught the following parable:
This is comparable to a merchant selling crimson dye. The king called him to his court and said to him: “Have you crimson dye?”. “No,” replied the man. The king continued: “How is it, then, that I have heard that you are a crimson dye merchant?” To which the merchant replied: “Your highness, for your purposes, my merchandise is meaningless.” This is what Moshe said to the Holy One Blessed Be He: “to You, I am not a man of words.”
(Devarim Rabba 1:7)
Nonetheless, when Moshe speaks to the people of Israel, he is, without doubt, a “man of words” par excellence. According to the Midrashic interpretation, Moshe’s statement was in relative terms – relative to God, he is a not a man of words. When he needed to stand before God or compare himself to God, he was speechless. Yet when he needed to stand before the people of Israel, he most certainly was able to do so. The problem with this explanation is that no one asked Moshe to describe his talents relative to God. His main task was to speak to the nation and to Pharaoh, so what bearing did his awkwardness before God have?
Our rabbis are teaching us a unique concept regarding leadership, and regarding Moshe’s leadership in particular. A leader is supposed to convey God’s message to the people, and Moshe was quite adept at this. However, to his understanding, much more was required of him. He also needed to represent the people to God, and it was in this that he felt lacking and inarticulate.
Moshe wanted to teach us that only someone who could understand the people, feel their pain and faithfully represent them before God could be the loyal shepherd demanding that the nation abide by God’s commandments. After forty years of dedicated service on behalf of the people, in spite of all of their misgivings, he was able to find the moral strength to rebuke them for their misdeeds.
A leader who could say the words, “please blot me out of the book you have written” (Shemot / Exodus 32:32) when told by God that He would obliterate His nation after the Sin of the Golden Calf is also worthy of demanding that the nation meet the goals the God had set for them – goals that Moshe, himself, had achieved. This kind of leader will also earn the nation’s trust, and can expect his words to be heeded and accepted.
The Midrash continues with another explanation for the discrepancy between Moshe’s ineloquence in Shemot / Exodus and his fluent speech in this week’s portion: Divrei Torah heal a person.
Everyone’s talents and abilities are limited, and Moshe, himself, was limited in certain areas. But once he received his task, he found new strength. Moshe, who called himself “a man heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue”, said so before the nation received the Torah and achieved its destiny. However, after the life of a nation or an individual is imbued with meaning, they can handle and overcome their deficiencies.
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