Studies show that most people prefer not to know when their last day will be. But Moses isn’t most people, and the last book of the Torah — Deuteronomy — starts 40 days before Moses’ passing and includes his last speech.
The Hebrew name for Deuteronomy is Devarim. The word means “things” but shares the same root — D.B.R. — with the Hebrew word dibur, or speech. The idea that “sticks and stones may break your bones but words will never hurt you” is not a Jewish one. Words are living, powerful things. God created the world with 10 sayings, and worlds can be destroyed with words, too. Lashon hara, speaking badly of someone, is considered such a grave sin because it can literally ruin someone’s life. The Ten Commandments are called in Hebrew Aseret Hadibrot, the Ten Statements — from the same root — and not, as we might expect, Aseret Hamitzvot. Moses, before his parting, leaves the people with real “things.”
“These are the things that Moses spoke to all of Israel on the other side of the Jordan, in the desert, in the wilderness, facing Suf, between Faran and between Tofel and Lavan (white), and Chatzerot (yards) and Di-Zahav (golden place)” (Deut. 1:1). Some of the names sound familiar but most must be symbolic. Onkelos, who translated the Torah into Aramaic 2,000 years ago, explained that these are references to incidents, rather than locations, along the journey that Moses hints at, so as not to disrespect the people. Lavan — white — is the time they complained about the manna. Di-Zahav — the golden place — refers to the Golden Calf, and so on.
And yet, Moses is not all subtlety and political correctness. He is also upset: “Because of you, God was bad to me too, telling me I will not go there.” He refers to the incident of the spies who brought back an evil report of the Promised Land that kept the people in the desert for an additional 38 years. The sages of the Midrash heard him well: He wanted to go into the land, and blamed the people because his one and only wish was not granted. Our sages describe the conversations Moses had with God, asking to go into the land after all. Moses is willing to be a bird and hover above the people, or perhaps a cow that will graze in their fields … God says no to all. A few chapters later, Moses says: “God was bad to me for your sake,” quite different from the accusatory tone earlier.
What happened? Perhaps Moses realizes that no matter what, he would not have entered the Land of Israel, no more than I can go live with my son in his barrack at West Point Military Academy. In Moses’ case, perhaps that would have made him too much like a god and idolatry was not an option. And perhaps it is just a reminder that we can’t have all we want in life, no matter who we are and what we’ve done. Moses in these moments is like all of us, working hard to make peace with the inevitable, but oh, how he wished it weren’t inevitable!
The word devarim appears elsewhere in Moses’ life: When he is sent to speak to Pharaoh, he says: “lo ish devarim anochi” meaning, “I’m not a man of lengthy speech” — or if we’d like, “I’m not a man of big things.” Yet that was before the journey, before the Exodus, before Sinai. Now, after 40 years, he can speak. Aaron, who used to speak for him, passed away some time ago and Moses doesn’t stutter anymore. He has no need for a translator. One of his motivations is that he speaks not just before Pharaoh but “to all Israel.”
The Torah portion and the Haftarah for this Shabbat, known as Shabbat Hazon, are always read before Tisha B’Av, the day we commemorate the destruction of the Temple, and are therefore especially important. The weeks before Tisha B’Av are considered dark and depressing, but Shabbat is light, joy and happiness. When light is brought into a dark place, its effect is much greater than when it is brought into a well-lit space. It’s a reminder that just like within light there is darkness, within darkness there is light. And it’s bound to come out, especially when “all of Israel” come together.
Michal Kohane is the director of the Israel Center of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. She has served in leadership roles throughout Northern California and holds advanced degrees in studies of Israel, psychology and education. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.