Finding the words

Rabbi Josef A. Davidson serves Congregation B’nai Amoona.

By Rabbi Josef A. Davidson

This week we begin the reading of the fifth book of the Torah, Devarim (“Words”), with the parashah of the same name. The format of this week’s parashah as well as the entire book of Devarim is that it is written in Moses’ words and not as if he was taking dictation or relating a narrative. This is especially surprising given the reluctance with which Moses agreed to take responsibility for the Israelites in the early chapters of Shemot. Then he protested, “Lo Ish Devarim Anochi — I have never been a man of words.” (Exodus 4:10) Somehow, over the next forty years, Moses found his words and his voice.

Those of us who are nearing the ideal age according to the author of Psalm 90:10, “the span of our lives is seventy years and with strength, eighty,” have or will enter an entirely new phase of life during which we retire from our life’s vocation. In Moses’ case, retirement comes with his death just prior to the people’s entrance into the Promised Land. 

Perhaps it is that Moses is able to find his own words, because he is at this phase of his life. His career is coming to an end; the role of leader after forty years has been transferred to another. Whereas the leader of a people must say and do certain things, the “retired” Moses does not. One could look upon the book of Devarim as Moses’ exit interview. Finally, he can share with his people the experience of leading them over the past 40 years, as he prepares them for the challenges that face them as they transition from a wandering company of liberated slaves to a nation with its own boundaries. 

As we age, we, too, often find our words. We have had a lifetime of experiences. We have had a lifetime of successes and failures, of lessons learned and of lessons taught. We have touched many lives over the years, raising our families, following our vocations, pursuing relationships within the community. In the generative period of our lives, life is very busy. There are so many tasks that require our attention. From the moment we awake until the moment we slip off into sleep, we are whirlwinds of activity. 

At this phase of life, as we approach, enter and, God willing, pass the ideal age of the Psalmist, we have more time and fewer tugs on our hems. Those of us with children have raised them to maturity, rejoice in their accomplishments and take pride as they take the positive and negative lessons we have imparted to them through word and deed and have integrated them in their own lives. Every promotion, every pay raise, every milestone they achieve gives us pause to remember and to reflect. We have accomplished what we had to do. We have taken our families to the “Promised Land” and now watch as they cross into it without us holding their hands anymore. The same can be said for our businesses, our practices, our jobs. Now we have the time to find our words, our Devarim. 

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Contained within this fifth book are many things (also called “Devarim” in Hebrew) not even touched upon in the other four books. Among these innovations are the notion of a centralized focal point for the practice of Judaism (the Temple), expanded social legislation and the concept of choice when it comes to the actions that we take.  Our words, too, can bring new insights and fresh views that come out of our experiences. Our words can lift up; they can also bring down. All we have to do is to find the right words. Shabbat Shalom!