As we near the end of the year, we read from Devarim, the book of Deuteronomy. The Hebrew name, Devarim, is telling for it means “words.” And we know how important words are in our tradition. God creates with words. And God said, “Let there be light” and there was light. And, yes, as we are like God, we also create with words.
And from whose words does this book take its name? Those of Moses—which is a bit odd! For when we were introduced to the man back in Exodus, Moses described himself as lo ish devarim anohi, as not being a man of words, as chaved peh and chaved lashon, as one slow of speech and slow of tongue. He was, in other words, a man who could not speak well, surely not in front of other people, someone who needed to rely on his older brother, Aaron, to speak for him, and his older sister, Miriam, to sing for him. Yet Devarim is filled with his words.
For in Devarim—with both Aaron and Miriam dead—Moses has learned to speak appropriately, to sing with others. Knowing he cannot enter the Promised Land with his people, he continues to work at building community, bringing people closer together and closer to God word by word, in speech and in song. Consider the words he shares as he remembers that powerful moment of revelation, that moment when God descended upon Sinai as he ascended that same mountain to bring the word of the Eternal to the people. Yes, he shares the Ten Utterances, known by so many as the Ten Commandments. And yet…has Moses’ memory failed him? Is he having a senior moment? Has he consciously chosen to change God’s words? Is he creating fake news? All we have to do is look back to that moment of revelation in Exodus. Moses has changed the fourth utterance, the fourth commandment. No longer does God tells us to zakhor et yom ha-Shabbat, to remember the Sabbath day; God now says shamor et yom ha-Shabbat, observe the Sabbath day. Now, it could be as we sing in L’cha Dodi welcoming Shabbat, shamor v’zakhor b’dibbur ehad, that, somehow, in only a way God knows, we both observe Shabbat and remember it in one word. Or maybe Moses felt that the people simply thought about Shabbat and said they remembered it (as it was commanded in Exodus) but did not do anything to observe it—and that is why Moses changed the verb to observe in Deuteronomy.
Yet the words Moses uses in describing God’s reason for Shabbat have completely changed. Back in Exodus, the reason is strictly theological. God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh; thus, created in God’s image, so must we. But now, forty years later, in Deuteronomy, Moses finds that the reason has changed. We are told to keep the Sabbath to teach social justice. Note that not only are we to rest on Shabbat, our servants or slaves, our animals, the strangers in our midst, must have that day of rest. Yes, we were slaves to Pharaoh; now, as Moses retells the story, we are all servants of God, defined not by what we do but by who we are.
No, Moses has not begun to lose his memory. And, no, he is not creating fake news. Rather, Moses is a different man in Deuteronomy than he had been forty years earlier in Exodus. Once a shepherd of sheep, he had become a shepherd of people. He had become a true leader. So while God’s words may well have stayed the same, Moses has not. He has learned that we are all children of God, all infinitely valuable to the One who made us.
And I write these words with sadness for us as a nation. How I yearned for our President to change once he assumed office, to understand the power of words and to know that he no longer was the head of a family business but the president of these United States of America. As Moses learned in his later years, perhaps our President could also learn how to be president of all of us, to help we the people build that more perfect Union. Yet this man cannot seem to learn and to change. And his dog whistles which gave permission during his campaign for some of our country’s darkest impulses to emerge from their hiding spots have become clarion calls to evil manifested through such people as David Duke and Richard Spencer. For I write these words just after the violence in Charlottesville. Our President should have condemned the planned alt-right rally long before it gathered its band of neo-Nazis and white supremacists and white nationalists. And then, following the tragic ugliness and domestic terrorism perpetrated by these extremists, the President could only find it within him to condemn violence from many sides, equating evil with those who seek to bring us together.
That sadness—and fear—should keep all of us diligent and ensure that we stand up to hatred whenever and wherever it is expressed. Our President has acted in ways that are neither presidential nor truly American. And the lesson which Moses taught (but our President has not yet learned) is a lesson for all of us. God yearns for us to grow, to hear better as we learn and mature, to change and work at making this world the world God desires. Our task is to use words to continue to create the country we know the United States can be, with liberty and justice for all.