Devarim: Words (Three Haikus)

These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel (Devarim 1:1)

Words (1)
Once my speech was lame –
words congealed behind stiff lips –
now my words sing forth.

Words (2)
Words unsaid resound
in deafening silence, as
duty is betrayed.

Words (3)
Trembling, here I stand,
filled with love and fear for you:
will you hear my words?


Words (1)
In a commentary on Parashat Devarim from 2009, Rabbi David Hoffman notes that the first four books of the Torah, Bereishit, Shemot, Vayikra and B’midbar, all relate the story as it occurs, and the characters are described experiencing the events in “real time.” However, in Devarim, we see a different approach: Moses recalls events through which his current listeners never lived, as, except for Joshua and Caleb, this is the new generation of the children of Israel. No-one here stood at Sinai. The covenant entered into there was with their ancestors who were redeemed slaves. The challenges facing the new generation differ hugely from those with which their ancestors had to contend. This new generation will have to enter the land and build a society vastly different from that of their wandering predecessors.
Rabbi Hoffman comments that Moses initially demurs from taking on the leadership of the people, telling God “…Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of words [devarim], either in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” (Shemot 4:10) And now, this final book opens with the words he speaks: “These are the words [devarim] that Moses addressed to all Israel…” (Devarim 1:1). As Rabbi Hoffman notes, “Indeed, the entire book constitutes one powerful and sustained verbal presentation.”
He suggests that Moses’s objectives now are still our religious challenges today. He asks “How do you render a story that happened to other people and make it your story, as meaningful to you as the day it occurred? How do you tell the story of our people’s relationship with God and move a new generation to willfully and passionately enter into this sacred Covenant? How do you make the argument to a generation of Jews that the Jewish community and Torah provide a rich and compelling framework to pursue ultimate questions of meaning?”
And he suggests that in Devarim, a new approach for the renewal of the covenant is forged. He notes that the Hebrew root l-m-d which in its different conjugations means to learn or teach, appears nowhere else in the Torah except for in this book, where it appears 17 times in twice as many chapters. So he says that he believes that learning and teaching form the essence of Devarim. We see this verb used in the context of God teaching the people; Moses teaching them, and, he says, perhaps most importantly, the people themselves teaching Torah: “Impress My words upon your heart . . . and teach them to your children — reciting them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up.” (Devarim 11:18–19)
Rabbi Hoffman continues “Limud (learning) constitutes the process through which we Jews connect with our history and make these historical stories our personal narratives. Understood in these terms, learning is not simply a means to acquire information. Rather, for the Jew, learning is an active process that is primarily about making meaning. The book of Devarim makes very clear that if we – in our generation – are to develop a personal, rich, and nurturing relationship with God, we must learn and study God’s Torah that reveals God’s aspirations for the world. Study is the means by which we make meaning in our own lives and it is activity whereby the Jew responds thoughtfully to the challenges of our particular age.”
He adds that at the conclusion of the book of Devarim, Moses, who once asserted that he was not a man of words, bows out, singing words of poetry:
Give ear, O heavens, let me speak;
let the earth hear the words I utter!
May my discourse come down as the rain,
My speech distill as the dew . . .
Give glory to our God!

(Devarim 32:1–3)
Rabbi Hoffman concludes “I submit that Moshe’s strength and newfound confidence emerged from his deep belief that he had finally found the path for real religious awakening. The thunder and direct experience of God at Sinai did not work even for the generation of the desert.
The book of Devarim creates the possibility that if God’s Presence is to be made manifest in our world, it will be in the words (devarim) of those who pursue with love the Will of the living God.”

Words (2)
In a commentary from 2010, http://ziegler.aju.edu/Default.aspx?id=5611, Rabbi Gail Labovitz says that as she looked through the parasha, preparing to write the commentary on it, one particular verse caught her eye. She notes that Moses does not recount the history of the people in their wanderings in an entirely chronological fashion. In the first chapter he relates the episode of the twelve spies, their negative report, and the people’s subsequent lack of faith which led to God’s anger and His decision to let that generation wander and die in the wilderness over 40 years (B’midbar 13, 14). Then Moses says the following “The Lord was incensed at me too because of you, saying you too shall not enter there.” (Devarim 1:37)
Rabbi Labovitz is troubled by two issues here. The first, more obvious problem is that Moses seems to be condensing two episodes: after the incident of the spies, the people were condemned to die in the wilderness but Moses was not punished. He was denied entry to the Land because of another incident in which he hit the rock rather than speaking to it as instructed at Merivah.
However, Rabbi Labovitz detects a deeper problem: it sounds like Moses is blaming the people for his punishment rather than shouldering the responsibility himself! And he makes similar statements subsequently. (Devarim 3:26, 4:21) She asks “What are we to make of this picture of Moses, of all people – the person considered to be the greatest leader in our history! – attempting to pass the buck?”
She says that among the commentaries addressing both these issues, she is drawn to that offered by the Ramban who says, “For the anger against Moses and against Aaron was because they struck the rock twice before the people and did not do as they were commanded, and the people reflected on the matter. And this is what it says [Devarim 32:51] “for you did not sanctify Me among the children of Israel” – that the punishment was only because the matter took place among the children of Israel, such that the Glory was not sanctified in their eyes.
So the Ramban is teaching that Moses is not saying that his punishment is their fault not his, rather that it was because of what he did in their presence that aggravated his misdeed. In effect, it was because he failed to set the appropriate example as a leader in the presence of his people, that led to such severe punishment. Rabbi Labovitz says “What a leader does or does not do, especially when it is done publicly and will influence others, can be of ultimate significance.”
Rabbi Labovitz continues with the story told in the Gemara (Gittin 55b,56a) concerning the events preceding the destruction of the Second Temple (the razing of both Temples and other catastrophes that devastated the Jewish people are commemorated on the upcoming fast of Tisha be’Av). The Gemara says “R. Yochanan said…The destruction of Jerusalem came through a Kamza and a Bar Kamza in this way. A certain man had a friend Kamza and an enemy Bar Kamza. He once made a party and said to his servant, Go and bring Kamza. The man went and brought Bar Kamza. When the man [who gave the party] found him there he said, See, you tell tales about me; what are you doing here? Get out. Said the other: Since I am here, let me stay, and I will pay you for whatever I eat and drink. He said, I won’t. Then let me give you half the cost of the party. No, said the other. Then let me pay for the whole party. He still said, No, and he took him by the hand and put him out. Said the other, Since the Rabbis were sitting there and did not stop him, this shows that they agreed with him. I will go and inform against them, to the Government. He went and said to the Emperor, The Jews are rebelling against you…”
Rabbi Labovitz notes that Bar Kamza did not only hold the host responsible for his humiliation, but also the rabbis who sat silently and thus passively colluded with the host. She says “How leaders respond, especially before others, matters…while the people (such as the host of the party or Bar Qamtza) may act sinfully, leaders bear an extra level of responsibility for how they respond. And, moreover, failure begets new, increasingly difficult choices. What people see from their leaders, or fail to see, has cosmic consequences.”

Words (3)
In a commentary from 2009, http://ziegler.aju.edu/Default.aspx?id=5610, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson notes that we learn in Midrash Sifrei Devarim that whenever the text uses the root DiBeR the speech is of a rebuking nature, whereas the root AMaR indicates praise. [Further, in Midrash Devarim Rabbah 1:6 an etymological link is suggested between devarim (words) and devorim (bees). Just as a bee stings before it dies, so did Moses offer a stinging rebuke of the people before his own death.]
So Rabbi Shavit Artson wonders why Moses is speaking harshly to the people when they are on the cusp of entry to a new life. Why are his parting words a chastisement, a reminder of how far they have moved from the ideals enumerated in the Torah? And he asks, too, “And did the people resent Moses’ apparent harshness, as most of us would? Did people say, “He never gives us a break,” or note that even at the end, he was still haranguing them, unable to focus, even for a moment, on their virtues and better natures?” Rabbi Shavit Artson concludes that the people seemingly were not resentful, as they mourned his death and he is still referred to as “Moses our teacher.”
Rabbi Shavit Artson continues “Can you imagine what it would be like if a Rabbi, at a dinner honoring 25 years of service with a particular synagogue, rather than dwelling on warm memories, started to list all of the congregants’ flaws over the past two-and-a-half decades? Can you imagine how resentful and bitter most of us would feel?”
He cites Rabbi Tarfon, a great sage of the Mishnah, who comments on the rebuke Moses delivers in this parasha “I swear by the Temple service, I doubt if there is anyone in this generation who is fit to rebuke others. For if one says to another, ‘Remove the mote from between your eyes,’ the reply invariably is, ‘Remove the beam from between your eyes.’ ” It seems that at that time, there was no-one worthy of being a role model to others.
Rabbi Shavit Artson continues with Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah’s comment “I swear by the Temple service, I doubt if there is anyone in this generation who is able to receive rebuke.” Rabbi Shavit Artson says “Rabbi Eleazar observed that people no longer accepted criticism as an act of love. Instead of listening openly to a description of how they had acted inappropriately and then working to modify their behavior to remove that flaw, the object of rebuke would respond defensively by either ignoring or insulting the person who had highlighted the error.”
Finally he notes that Rabbi Akiva, a contemporary of Rabbi Tarfon, adds his lament to those of his colleagues. “I swear by the Temple service, I doubt if there is anyone in this generation who knows how to rebuke.” Rabbi Shavit Artson concludes “Pointing out someone’s shortcoming or error should not be a chance for insults or a sense of superiority. It should not become an opportunity to humiliate or gloat. Instead, a rebuke, if properly intended and given, becomes an act of affirmation and love, an affirmation that the person is worth the effort in the first place, and a faith that he or she remains capable of improvement. Offered with love and a sense of humility, a rebuke is a gift and a challenge. Without our friends, colleagues and families willing to point out our own errors of judgment or action, we all blind ourselves to our own faults and to those aspects of reality we don’t want to see. Each of us depends on the caring of others, their courage to articulate disappointment in our action, as the indispensable prerequisite to self-improvement and refinement.
“We cannot afford to wait for the perfect, loving hero to point out our flaws. Instead, we rely on those around us, family and friends, to act as our early warning system, pointing out moral failure and ethical obtuseness before it is too late to improve. But when they do, we must be able to really listen.”

************************

These three poems are based on the structure of an English language Haiku which is a very short poem following, to a greater or lesser extent, the form and style of the Japanese haiku. Traditional haiku consist of 17 syllables in three phrases of 5, 7 and 5 respectively. Japanese Haiku are often written on one line, while English Haiku are frequently written in three lines.
Haiku has become a term sometimes loosely applied to any short, impressionistic poem, but there are certain characteristics that are commonly associated with the genre. The first English Haiku is considered to have been written in the early 20th century while Japanese Haiku date back to the 17th century.

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