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Torah Sparks

July 24, 2004 - 6 Av 5764

Annual: Deuteronomy 1:1 - 3:22 (Etz Hayim, p. 981; Hertz p. 736)
Triennial Cycle: Deuteronomy 2:31 - 3:22 (Etz Hayim, p. 994; Hertz p. 746)
Haftarah: Isaiah 1:1 - 27 (Etz Hayim, p. 1000; Hertz p. 750)

Prepared by Rabbi Naomi Levy
Author of To Begin Again and Talking to God

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director

Parasha Summary

This Shabbat we enter the fifth book of the Torah, Devarim, which means "Words." Moshe calls the Children of Israel together to listen to him as he prepares them for their entrance into the Promised Land. Before they can move forward, Moshe asks them to look behind them and remember the critical events that transpired during the journey through the wilderness. He reminds them not only of their triumphs and their faith, but of their rebellions and their transgressions. Moshe knows that he will no longer be able to physically lead this people, so he offers them his teachings in the hopes that they will be remembered and will be a source of strength and inspiration to them as they proceed without him into the Land of Israel. Of course Moshe succeeded beyond his wildest imagination. His words call out to us today, as they did to our ancestors so long ago, and beckon us to listen.

Discussion Theme 1: Powerful Words

"These are the words which Moshe spoke to all of Israel" (Deut. 1:1)

Sefer Devarim, The Book of Words, forces us to contemplate the power of the word. In the book of Bereshit, the Torah begins by introducing us to a God who speaks and creates: "And God said Let there be light and there was light." And now the Torah ends by revealing to us the indelible imprint of the human word: "These are the words that Moshe spoke to all of Israel."

Derash: Study

  1. In the Midrash we are taught: (Deut. Rabbah 1:1) Moshe, before he was privileged to receive the Torah said, "I am not a man of words;" but after he had proved himself worthy of the Torah his tongue became cured and he began to speak words: "These are the words which Moshe spoke." When God first called out to Moshe at the burning bush and commanded him to go to Pharaoh and say "Let My people Go," Moshe said to God, Lo ish devarim anochi - "I'm not a man of words." Moshe was being honest about himself. He wasn't a man of words, he was a man of action. Perhaps that's what God saw in Moshe, he wasn't an orator he was a leader, a doer. But his tendency to act rather than to speak is precisely what led to Moshe's downfall. In the desert when the children of Israel were tired and thirsty, God instructed Moshe to speak to the rock, but instead he acted, he struck the rock. Now at the end of his career, Moshe has come full circle. He has learned many invaluable lessons through the years as he led his people across the wilderness and has at last become precisely what he thought he could never be: a man of words.
  2. In Pirkei Avot 1:17 we read: Shimon taught: Throughout my life I was raised among the scholars, and I discovered that there is nothing more becoming a person than silence…excess in speech leads to sin.
  3. Maimonides, in the Mishneh Torah (Chapter 2:4), details how we ought to guard our words: One must not make a habit of using flattering speech…One must not say one thing and mean another, but like heart face; we should express in words of mouth only what we have in mind. We must not deceive people - One must not urge another to join him at a meal though aware that the invitation will not be accepted. One must not overwhelm his guest with offers, knowing that he will not accept. Even a single word of deception is forbidden.
  4. In chapter 4 of the Mishneh Torah Maimonides focuses on the dangers of the negative use of words: gossip. Who is a talebearer? One who carries gossip, going about from person to person and telling: "So and so said this; I have heard so and so about so and so." Even though he tells the truth, he ruins the world.

Questions for Discussion

  1. In the book of Exodus (2:11-12) we read: Moshe saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew… He turned this way and that and, seeing no one about, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. Most of the time we read this scene as a positive event -- Moshe came to the defense of a Hebrew slave. But can it be read another way? Notice that this same verb (in Hebrew va-yach) is used when Moshe struck the rock. Was Moshe too quick to act? Could he have first tried to confront the Egyptian? Should he have used his words before he struck the Egyptian dead?
  2. How does this topic relate to the state of the world today? What are the limits of diplomacy? When should we act and when should we speak?
  3. In reviewing your own life, you can look back at times when you wished that you would have talked things out before you reacted physically? Alternately, are there words you have spoken that you wish you could take back?
  4. Maimonides speaks very adamantly against words of deception. Do you agree? Have you ever made a false offer to pick up a check at a restaurant knowing full well that the other party was going to pay?
  5. Can you think of situations when it might be permissible to tell a white lie?
  6. How does gossip ruin the world? Can you think of examples from your own family? Your synagogue? Your place of work?

Discussion Theme 2: Too Much of a Good Thing?

"The Lord our God spoke to us at Horeb (Sinai), saying: You have stayed long enough at this mountain." (Deut. 1:6) Sinai was such a pivotal place for the Israelites. It's the location where they experienced God first hand and received the words of the ten commandments. Why did God want us to move on from Sinai?

Derash: Study

  1. Rashi explains this verse in two ways. The first way is the peshat, the plain meaning of the words: You've dwelt long enough in this mountain, it's time to move on.
  2. But there is an Aggadic explanation that Rashi brings from the Sifre: God has given you much distinction and reward for your having dwelt in this mountain - you made the Tabernacle, the candlestick, and the other sacred articles, you received the Torah, you appointed a Sanhedrin for yourselves…In other words, it's not "You've dwelled long enough at this mountain," but rather, "You've been rewarded by staying at this mountain."
  3. Rabbi Kalonymus Epstein, in his book of Chassidic thought, Meor VaShamesh, understood these words differently. He explained the verse this way: When you were on the mountain of Horeb, the Lord told you that you are not to look upon every obstacle and hindrance as an unconquerable mountain, but that you must surmount any obstacles that might stand in the way… In other words, it's not "You've dwelled long enough at this mountain," but rather, "Don't regard obstacles as insurmountable mountains."

Questions for Discussion

  1. Can you think of sacred, holy situations that we must move on from? How do we know when we've stayed too long at the same place? When is the time to make a change?>
  2. What are the rewards your community has received by lingering in a place of holiness? Can you list them as Rashi did?
  3. It's so important in life to know the difference between an insurmountable mountain and a challenge we have the power to overcome. How can we tell the difference between an impossible dream and holy opportunity? Can you think of situations you gave up on that you now realize were in your power to triumph over?

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