1 These are the words which Moses spoke unto 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. (Devarim 1:1)
Most of the content of this week’s Torah portion is comprised of Moshe’s recount of all the times the Children of Israel defaulted on their end of their relationship with G-d. It is rebuke, to be sure, but his speech to the Children of Israel–conveyed through hints and with deep respect for those whom he was addressing–is held up throughout our sources as the model for how to give rebuke. Furthermore, the phrase “these are the words” is understood by our Sages as a testimony to Moshe’s eloquence and articulateness in delivering this rebuke.
There is a question we can ask, however, on this last point. If we jog our historical memories, we will remember the fact that Moses protested his own mission to the Jewish people in the following way:
“’Oh L-rd, I am not a man of words, neither heretofore, nor since You have spoken unto Your servant; for I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue.” (Shemot 4:10)
Since when did Moses become an orator? Up to this point, we have gone along with his own self-description as someone who possessed the trait of כבד פה (a “heavy mouth” or tongue)!
Nevertheless, when we look in the Midrash on this week’s parsha, we are informed that, indeed, Moses was the very paradigm of a clear, eloquent speaker. Consider the following:
A peddler announced to the consumers at the local marketplace that he was selling argaman, exquisite, dyed purple wool, the finest of its kind. The king became aware of the peddler’s publicity efforts, and instructed the peddler to appear before him.
When the peddler arrived and bowed before the king, the king asked him, “what was it that you were selling?”
“Nothing, my lord,” answered the peddler.
“But didn’t I hear you calling out that you were selling argaman?” demanded the king.
“Yes, your Majesty,” answered the peddler.
“Then why did you tell me that you were selling nothing?” asked the king.
“Because, my lord,” replied the peddler, “in the eyes of the people, argaman is a very exclusive product. But argaman is nothing compared to the wealth of the king”. (Midrash Rabba Devarim 1:7)
Our Midrash is a commentary on the phrase “these are the words” from our verse. The lesson taught here is very deep: Moses found it difficult to express himself in conversation with G-d; in that context, he was “of slow tongue”. This is because G-d Himself is the One Who fashioned the mouth and bestowed the power of speech upon man to begin with. He is the Facilitator of all speech; what, really, can a person say to Him? At the same time, the power of speech is related to the divine attribute of Malchut (Kingship), and for all intents and purposes, Moses was the king of the Israelites. Accordingly, when it came to communicating with them, he was absolutely clear.
We live with this tension between our ability to speak to people in a relatively clear manner and veritable muteness in the presence of G-d. This is probably one of the reasons why, in Jewish liturgy, such as before the amidah prayer, “L-rd, open my lips, so that my mouth may declare Your praise”. We all need to depend on G-d, even for the strength and clarity to pray to Him. Note that this phrase is uttered even though the amida is a standardized prayer that Jews recite three times every day. Noahides, who have much more freedom in how and when to pray, can take inspiration from this, too. Because it is a very human experience, standing before G-d and wondering how to truly speak and pray to Him.
And we have to try.
I once visited Rabbi Michel Dorfman zt”l when he was in the hospital. When I came in, he was still asleep, but eventually he stirred, opened his eyes and looked at me.
Then, without any introduction, he said, “I just met with someone who was an advisor to President Bush. He had access to the most powerful man in the world 24 hours a day.”
“I want you to know,” he continued, “that the littlest Jew has access to the One Who created the world— 24 hours a day.”
Then he lowered his eyes, and relaxed, gently ending the conversation.
Of course, Reb Michel’s words apply to all peoples. May we all be blessed to pray with intention and a deep connection to G-d, every day.
Good Shabbos! Shabbat Shalom!
By Rabbi Tani Burton
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