THE BOOK OF DEUTERONOMY
The fifth and last book of Moses opens with his proclamation – THESE ARE THE WORDS… But this, of course, is the inadequate English translation of an original Hebrew concept that means more than merely an abstract verbal notion. In Biblical Hebrew, the same word for ‘words’ – DVARIM – can also mean ‘objects’ or ‘things’. Not terribly surprising in a culture where the world is created by word – by Divine speech. Instant weight is built into these final words of the prophet – words that bear gravity and will be henceforth considered as if ‘written in stone’. In this context, and perhaps in others, we are reminded of the power of words to shape reality, for better or worse.
The official English name of this book – Deuteronomy – meaning ‘the Secondary Torah’ originates from the Latin, and refers to this book’s repetition of the previous two books. But a closer read reveals more than a repetition. Moses’ swan song is a mixture of rant and litany, complete with harsh lashings, pithy poetry and words that mean more than meets the eye.
Take for example the question ‘HOW’, asked by an angry Moses as he recounts his early burnout days, before delegating an elaborate judicial system that will ease his burden of leadership:
How can I myself alone bear your cumbrance, and your burden, and your strife? Dvarim 1:12
The Hebrew word for ‘how’ is Eycha, at first glance merely a question, but at closer read, a loaded lament. Eycha is the first word of the Scroll of Lamentations – the English name of the Biblical book that is originally named after that first word – The scroll of Eycha. The ‘how’ in that context is a scream in the face of destruction: How lonely sits the destroyed city of Jerusalem, how could this have happened? This coming week, on the Ninth of Av (July 23) , Jews will sit on the floor of their synagogues and read this lament to candlelight. The ‘how’ has extended to include every known calamity in Jewish history, and also to offer each of us time to ponder very personal reckonings of difficult questions about the world and about our lives – big questions that we don’t normally dare ask.
But Eycha is more than an angry or heartbroken question that is perhaps directed towards God – it is in fact an answer to a question asked by God much earlier in the story. Right after Adam & Eve eat from that fruit and hide in the garden, God’s voice calls to them: Ayecha? Where are you? It is the same word, spelled a little differently – and almost the same terrible question.
In some congregations it is customary to chant Moses’ question – only this one verse in the Torah potion of ‘Dvarim’ – in the same sad trope as that of the Eycha Scroll, thus mentally preparing the community for the upcoming 24 hour fast. This quaint custom, highlighting one word in a ritualistic way, links Moses, and us, through the spoken and chanted word, to a destroyed Jerusalem and an Eden left behind.
In his commentary on the first verse of Dvarim, Rashi, the French Torah interpreter wrote: ‘These are the words – all Israel were gathered to hear the repetition from the mouth of Moses himself and make sure there are no contradictions.’
How can we be sure that the words we’ve received, the teachings, laws, and legends are exactly what we need in order to lead the healthy and helpful lives we all yearn for? Rashi paints the picture of a community demanding to see the words formed out of the mouth of the lawmaker – concrete evidence of authority and integrity. Nowadays, all we have are the inherited words – once spoken, now printed, solid artifacts; words truly turned into things, but at the same time – transcending space and time.
Stay tuned to a book full of words that probe and ponder, heal and reveal, reviewing the ongoing journey of a people towards a future where –here’s hoping – the land is a promise, the temple never topples, and every word counts.