Here’s a joke:
It was the middle of Shabbat morning services, and the rabbi noticed that old Irv Cohen was asleep in the third row. So he elbowed the Temple President and said, “Cohen is asleep again. Go wake him up!”
The President answered: “That’s not fair.”
So the rabbi replied, “What do you mean? Go wake him up!”
To which the president answered again, “That’s not fair.”
Now the rabbi was frustrated: “This is a synagogue, not a bedroom. Cohen can’t sleep through my sermon. Go wake him up!”
And the president answered simply: “That’s not fair. YOU put him to sleep. YOU wake him up.”
The joke about rabbis seems to be that they talk a little too much. This week’s Torah portion proves that Moses was truly the first rabbi, in that he was capable of talking for extended periods of time.
Here’s what I mean: After 40 years of wandering, our people are now standing, ready to cross over the Jordan river into the Promised Land. But Moses knows something very important. He knows that he is not going with them. As you may remember, Moses was punished by God that he cannot enter the Promised Land. He has the opportunity to stand up on a mountaintop and see the land. But he’s not going to accompany the people there, and he’s not going to be there to help them set up their new society.
So Moses takes it upon himself to give them some advice. Lots of advice. A whole book’s worth of advice, in fact, that we call the book of Deuteronomy. This last book of the Torah will consist of several speeches given by Moses – in which he’ll recount past events, go back over the places they’ve been, and give laws and advice for the people as they set up their new society in the land of Israel.
In Hebrew, we call this book D’varim, which means “Words.” Because it starts by saying, “Eleh had’varim – these are the words that Moses spoke.”
The irony of Moses giving 3 long speeches is that he is not really a public speaker. Back in Exodus, when God first came to Moses to lead the Jewish people, Moses said– Lo ish d’varim anochi – “I am not a man of words.”
But now, our man of few words has become a man of many words.
But there’s another layer here. And for that, we need to know that the word d’varim doesn’t only mean “words.” It also means “deeds” or “actions.”
And while Moses may not have been a man of words, he was most definitely a man of deeds. Here is a leader who devoted his entire life and every bit of his energy to his people. He went to Pharaoh. He parted the red sea. He climbed Sinai and brought back the Torah. He led the people through the Wilderness. And now they all lend him their ears because they know after 40 years that he is the real deal.
Moses is an example for us as Jews because he values D’varim – he values both words and deeds.
As Jews, we are people of words. The the name that was given to us in the medieval Islamic world was Am HaSefer – people of the book. We are people of the book because we find meaning by delving into ancient texts – by reading what our ancestors had to say hundreds and thousands of years ago, and challenging ourselves to find relevance in those texts for our own lives.
But we’re not only people of words. We are also people of actions. The basic unit of Jewish life is not words, and it’s not really beliefs either. It is mitzvot – commandments. The Jewish things that we do define the Jewish lives that we live.
There is a passage in the mishnah, that has made its way into the daily morning service, that begins:
Elu d’varim she’ein lahem shiur – These are the d’varim (the actions or deeds) whose worth cannot be measured. And it goes on to list them:
- Honouring your father and mother
- Engaging in acts of compassion
- Study Torah
- Welcoming the stranger
- Visiting the sick
- Celebrating with the wedding couple
- Burying the dead
- And making peace
These are, in many ways, the most basic acts of Jewish communal life – celebration, mourning, study and prayer, and building relationships. When we live our lives in these ways, then we are building strong community, we are there for each other, and we can work deepen our own sense of self worth, and our own connection with God. Those are tasks that never end, which is why the passage refers to them as d’varim she’ein lahem shiur – actions with unlimited worth.
So maybe that’s what Moses means to say to us as he stands on the shore of the Jordan river. That the words we speak, and the ways that we relate to one another and to God really matter. That we have the power to effect goodness in each other’s lives and in the world, by being concerted and thoughtful about how we live our lives.
That’s an extraordinary power and an extraordinary responsibility that Judaism places on us. But it’s also an extraordinary privilege – to be a source of goodness and blessing to those around us.
On this Shabbat, may we recognize that responsibility and may we embrace that privilege.
May we recognize that our d’varim – our words and our actions – really do matter in the world.