Devarim: Words and Things

wordsElu Dvarim…these are the words. That’s how the last book of the Torah,  Devarim, words, begins.  Moses proceeds to talk…and talk….and talk….elu devarim…these are the words.

These words remind me of a camp song, “Elu dvarim”, these are the things.  Davar (plural is dvarim), is one of those interesting Hebrew words that has two meanings:  “word” and “thing”.   The camp song is really a prayer, in the morning service:  “These are the obligations (things) without measure, whose reward too is without measure.”  And then the prayer goes on to list all the things that a person can do to receive the greatest personal/communal reward:  honor mother and father, perform acts of kindness, attend to daily study, welcome the stranger, visit the sick, rejoice with the bride and groom, pray with sincerity, make peace where there is strife” and finishes with the statement that the study of Torah is equal to all of these things, because study will lead to all these things.

We think of study as a solitary thing.  Sit in a room with a book.  How can that possibly impact the world?  First, that’s not the Jewish model of study.  Jewish study is  chevruta, paired study.  You study with a partner.  You debate. Argue. Agree. Question. Try out ideas. Then debate again. But you’re still not out of the library.

Back to Devarim, Deuteronomy.  Moses is speaking all these words to a generation that never knew Egypt (slavery) or Sinai (miraculous revelation of Torah).  Remember the 40 years?  God wanted the entire Exodus/Sinai generation to die out, and bring a new generation into the Land.  More than ever, this generation would need to hear more than words.  They had to know how these words would be manifest in a new society, a new Land, a whole new community.  So there are rules, rewards and punishments, guidelines.  Moses is saying, “Here’s how this is going to work.  Here’s what you DO.  Here’s how you keep this going after the echo of my words fades away.

Elu dvarim…these are God’s words.  Elu dvarim…this is what you do with those words.  Elu v’elu…these and these.  Elu v’elu d’vrei  elohim chayim.  These are these are the words of the living God.  This phrase was used when the great scholars in the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai disagreed, which was most of the time.  Elu v’elu.  Both of the arguments are valid.  Both are made with honesty and integrity.

Elu dvarim. Words and things.  Words of Torah, and the actions and obligations of Torah. The word “davar” encompasses both – words are how the world was brought into being; God spoke.  But words without actions are empty (ok, maybe except when God does it).  Actions without words can be misinterpreted, missing the direct communication between people.  We need both words and actions to have the greatest impact on the world around us.  These and these.  Words and actions are the things that make up the living God’s world. They can build it up, or tear it down.  Devarim reminds us to choose carefully.

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