“The Transformation of Moses is Completed”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

With this week’s parasha, parashat Devarim, we begin reading the fifth and final book of the Torah, known as דְּבָרִים , Devarim–Deuteronomy.

The entire book of Deuteronomy takes place during the final weeks of Moses’ life. In Devarim, Moses reviews and teaches many of the laws of the Torah and much of the history of Israel, stressing those laws and teachings that the people of Israel will need to know in their future life in the Promised Land.

Parashat Devarim opens with the well-known verse, Deuteronomy 1:1, אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן , These are the words (דְּבָרִיםDevarim) that Moses spoke to all of Israel on the other side of the Jordan… The Torah, in Deuteronomy 1:3, states that it was on the first day of Shevat that Moses began to review the Torah with the people of Israel. According to tradition, he continued until the day before he died, on the seventh of Adar.

The book of Deuteronomy is significantly different from the first four books of the Torah, whose contents are attributed directly to G-d. In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses speaks to the people in G-d’s name.

It is quite significant that the final book of the Torah opens with the words, אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר מֹשֶׁה , and these are the words-
דְּבָרִים , (devarim) that Moses spoke, דִּבֵּר ,(dee’ber) to all of Israel.

It is impossible not to be struck by these words. After all, when G-d first revealed Himself to Moses at the Burning Bush, and tried to convince Moses to serve as His agent to redeem the Jewish people, Moses fought bitterly not to be appointed. Even after G-d gave Moses a series of Divine signs, Moses demurs, saying to G-d, Exodus 4:10, בִּי השׁם, לֹא אִישׁ דְּבָרִים אָנֹכִי גַּם מִתְּמוֹל גַּם מִשִּׁלְשֹׁם גַּם מֵאָז דַּבֶּרְךָ אֶל עַבְדֶּךָ, כִּי כְבַד פֶּה וּכְבַד לָשׁוֹן אָנֹכִי , Please my L-rd, I am not a man of words, not since yesterday, nor since the day before yesterday, nor since You first spoke to Your servant, for I am heavy of mouth and heavy of speech. G-d responds to Moses movingly, in Exodus 4:11, “Who makes a mouth for man? Or who makes one mute or deaf or sighted or blind? Is it not I, the L-rd? So now go. I shall be with your mouth and teach you what you should say.” Despite G-d’s assurance, Moses responds, Exodus 4:13, “Please, my L-rd, send through whomever You will send.” Send anyone, just not me!

The commentators differ over the meaning of the Hebrew expression, כְבַד פֶּה וּכְבַד לָשׁוֹן. Rashi says that Moses said of himself that he was a stammerer and a stutterer. Other commentators disagree. The Rashbam says that Moses, who is now 80 years old, meant that he was not fluent in Egyptian, because he was young when he was forced to flee Egypt. R. Abraham Ibn Ezra says that Moses felt inadequate because he was not a polished or gifted speaker. Shadal seems to indicate that because he spoke bluntly and forcefully, Moses felt that he would not be an effective communicator.

Moses not only felt inadequate as a speaker, but also as a leader. When the people were in the wilderness and complained about the Manna, Moses cried out to G-d, Numbers 11:11, “Why have You done evil to Your servant? Why have I not found favor in Your eyes that You place the burden of this entire people upon me?” Moses offers a most dramatic and plaintive plea, Numbers 11:12, הֶאָנֹכִי הָרִיתִי אֵת כָּל הָעָם הַזֶּה אִם אָנֹכִי יְלִדְתִּיהוּ, כִּי תֹאמַר אֵלַי שָׂאֵהוּ בְחֵיקֶךָ, כַּאֲשֶׁר יִשָּׂא הָאֹמֵן אֶת הַיֹּנֵק עַל הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתָּ לַאֲבֹתָיו , Did I [Moses] conceive this entire people or did I give birth to it, that You [G-d] say to me, “Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a suckling, to the land that You swore to its forefathers?”

My father, Moshe Aharon Buchwald, of blessed memory, used to joke about some of the people who came from his shtetl in Poland, Biala. Growing up in great poverty, many Jewish children never had a chance to receive even a basic education, and were functionally illiterate. However, when they arrived in America, they immediately enrolled in public schools and, lo and behold, they soon became quite educated, serving as public leaders, at times, delivering eloquent public addresses. My father compared this to Moses, who, when he first started out, was a stammerer and a stutterer, unable to speak a word. After crossing the sea, the Torah tells us (Exodus 15:1), אָז יָשִׁיר מֹשֶׁה , that Moses became the “Poet Laureate” of Israel, composing the most beautiful songs and poetry. So it was with his fellow Biala landsman, who crossed the sea in steerage, arrived at Ellis Island, and after focusing on education, became eloquent “singers.”

אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים , these are the words that Moses spoke to all of Israel. The “inarticulate” Moses, who insisted that, “I am not a man of Devarim, I am not a man of words,” not only became a man of words, but an entire book of the Torah records his final days as the ultimate “Man of Words.” Not only has Moses been transformed into a passionate and an articulate orator and speaker, he has also become a tireless leader. The man who cried, “Did I conceive this entire people or did I give birth to it?” has become a gifted leader, who has enabled an enslaved people to be taken out of Egypt and brought to the very doorstep of the Promised Land. Through his leadership and his cajoling, he succeeded in breaking the resistence and indifference of these difficult people, persuading them to leave the land of their enslavement, and they all left. And when they stood before their first challenge, and began to complain about the Manna and begged to be taken back to Egypt, Moses was able to transform the mixed multitude of former slaves into a powerful people, who are now free to conquer and settle in the Holy Land.

The task of transforming the rebellious people was far more difficult than taking them out of Egypt. For forty years Moses educated the people, taught them the statutes and laws of G-d, and gave them the Torah. He organized a judicial system and stood up to their every complaint, rebellion and challenge. With a soft hand and a loving heart, he served as the shepherd of the people of Israel, answering all their requests and responding to all their complaints with infinite patience and with fatherly love–despite all the great disappointments and the lack of gratitude displayed by the stiff-necked People of Israel. And when it was necessary for him to reprove them and even punish them, he did so with great humility, never asking for anything in return, only longing to see the fulfillment of the holy task of redeeming G-d’s people.

The man who said, ”I am not a man of words,” the man who asked, “Did I conceive this entire people, did I give birth to it?,” eventually became the great orator and the thoroughly devoted nursemaid of his people.

The book of Deuteronomy confirms that the transformation of Moses is now complete.

May you be blessed.

Please remember: Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the new month of Av, was observed on Sunday evening, July 23rd and all day Monday, July 24th. It marked the beginning of the “Nine Days” a period of intense mourning leading to the fast of Tisha b’Av.