THE PROPHET’S SPEECH

 

“These are the words that Moshe spoke to all Israel; beyond the Jordan, in the wilderness, in the Arava, opposite the Red Sea, between Paran and Tofel, and Lavan, and Hatzerot and Di Zahav.” (Devarim 1:1)

 

The fifth and final book of the Torah is Deuteronomy. This a Greek word whose meaning approximates to the name given by our Sages to this book, namely, Mishneh Torah, the Repetition of the Law. Indeed, Deuteronomy contains a great deal of material that appears in the other four books of the Torah. The reason for this repetition is a topic for another time. Although the name Mishneh Torah describes the content of this book, the actual title of the book is Devarim, “words.” This is an apt appellation because Devarim is a collection of three main speeches delivered by Moshe in the last five weeks of his life. Rabbi Steinsaltz (introduction to Devarim in the Weisfeld Edition) notes, “Deuteronomy is unique in the manner of its composition. The other books of the Torah are related from the point of view of an anonymous, omniscient narrator, as both the words of God and statements of various characters, including Moses, are delivered in the third person. Not only are the commandments and obligations presented in this detached fashion, as it were, but also the deeds and speeches of God and man. By contrast, the narrator in the book of Deuteronomy is Moses, himself, and he speaks in the first person. Therefore, the common introductory verse of the previous books, “And God spoke to Moses, saying”, does not appear in the book of Deuteronomy at all.

 

Devarim constitutes perhaps the longest ‘sermon’ that was ever delivered in history. Considering the person delivering the sermon, this is quite ironic. The Midrash (Devarim Rabbah 1:7) picks up on this irony: “When addressing God, who creates the mouth and the power of speech, Moshe said (Shmot 4:10), “I am not a man of words.” But when addressing the Israelites, the verse says of him, “These are the words [that Moshe spoke].”  Rabbi Tanchuma (ibid) offered a parable to explain the matter: “There was a man selling purple wool. He would call out [to potential buyers], “Here is purple wool [for sale]!” The king saw him and heard his voice. He summoned him and asked, “What are you selling?” The man replied, “Nothing at all.” The king said, “I heard your voice and you were saying that you have purple wool for sale and yet you say you are selling nothing?”  The man replied, “My master, it is indeed purple wool but for your majesty, it is nothing.” The Eitz Yosef commentary explains that the man was selling poor quality purple wool. Your average buyer considered this a luxury but royalty would only purchase the finest cloth. Thus, for king’s subjects he was selling something but as far as the king was concerned, he was selling nothing at all. This is what Moshe said to Hashem, “To the Children of Israel my words are words, but before You, the creator of speech, they are nothing!”

 

In the book of Shmot (4:10), Moshe describes himself as being “slow of speech and slow of tongue.” It is not clear what the nature of Moshe’s speech impediment was. He could have suffered from a stutter or the inability to pronounce certain consonants correctly. His concern was not imaginary. God assured him (ibid verses 11-12), “The Lord said to him: Who gives a mouth to a person? Or who renders one mute or deaf, or sighted or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now, go, and I will be with your mouth, and I will instruct you that which you shall say.” In addition, God appointed Aharon, Moshe’s brother, to be his spokesperson (ibid, verse 15-16), “You shall speak to him, and you shall place the words in his mouth; and I will be with your mouth and with his mouth, and I will instruct you that which you shall do. He shall speak to the people for you, and he shall be a mouth for you, and you shall be a leader for him.”

 

Moshe started his leadership career as a poor orator and ended it as the greatest spokesperson of all time. I believe that the point of transition was at Mt Sinai. There we read (Shmot 19:19), “The blast of the shofar grew continuously stronger. Moshe would speak, and God would answer him with a voice.” The last part of this verse is difficult. What does it mean that God would answer him “with a voice”? How else does one speak if not with a voice? Rashi explains that when Moshe needed to speak to the Children of Israel prior to the Revelation, God amplified his voice so that it would be audible to the people. Thus, the verse does not mean “God answered him with a voice” but rather, “God answered regarding the matter of his voice.” It would appear that at this moment, Moshe’s speech impediment was cured for good. He no longer required the services of Aharon as a spokesperson. In fact, following the Revelation, the people came to him and said (Shmot 20:16), “You speak with us and we will hear, and God should not speak with us, lest we die.” The experience of direct prophecy was too overwhelming for the nation. They requested that, going forward, Moshe should communicate God’s word to them. Thereafter, Moshe became the teacher of Torah to the entire nation. He conveyed to the people every mitzvah, message, rebuke, encouragement, warning and consolation that he received from Hashem.

 

How did Moshe overcome his “heaviness of speech”? He did not receive elocution lessons, as King George VI did from Lionel Logue, an Australian speech and language therapist. Logue helped the monarch make his first wartime radio broadcast upon Britain’s declaration of war on Germany in 1939. This episode forms the basis of the award-winning film, The King’s Speech. I would like to suggest that Moshe’s speech improved because he desperately wanted it to improve. Moshe initially demurred when Hashem spoke to him at the burning bush. His rejection of God’s mission was not only because he thought he could not speak properly,  there were other reasons – he was concerned for the honour of his brother, Aharon; he did not believe the Hebrews would believe him etc. However, after a long dialogue, which Rashi calculates as lasting seven days (Shmot 4:10), Moshe acquiesced and went on his way. After receiving permission from Yitro to leave Midyan, Moshe set out with his wife and children and met Aharon on the way. The brothers then travelled to Egypt and came before Pharaoh. We can imagine how frustrating it must have been for Moshe, God’s personal emissary, not to be able to express himself adequately before the Egyptian king and the Hebrew slaves. Although we have no record of it, it is entirely reasonable to suggest that Moshe prayed for the ability to speak well, so that he could communicate God’s word as befits His loyal servant. Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish teaches in the Talmud (Yoma 38b), “When one comes to impurify [himself], they leave the door open for him. When one comes to purify [himself], they assist him [from above].” If a person chooses to do evil, God does not interfere. He leaves the door open. He neither hinders nor helps. However, when one chooses to do what is good, to follow Hashem’s ways, he will receive Divine assistance. Moshe wanted to speak and God, in turn, helped him to do so. I have witnessed, many times, the truth of this teaching. I have seen people make commitments to undertake noble tasks, even though they there were difficult. They succeeded because God noted their dedication and came to their aid!

 

Lee, Chani Merryl and Naomi join me in wishing you Shabbat Shalom! Rabbi Liebenberg

 

Link to Rabbi’s YouTube message for the parsha: https://youtu.be/ReK14NlHZx4

 

*Shabbat Chazon is the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, the Fast of the 9th Av, which takes place on Wednesday night 26 and Thursday 27 July. The fast begins at 18h00 and terminates at 18h29. We have a full programme for the fast that you can find below.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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