D'varim

by Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz

"These are the words (hadvarim) which Moses spoke (deeber) to all Israel..."

Thus begins the fifth Book of the Humash in which Moses skillfully recounts the wonders and gifts that G‑d had bestowed upon His People. Moses' intent seems clear. He wishes to invest the Jewish People with a religious devotion to G‑d and His law which will endure. And so Moses uses the only vehicle available to a mere mortal - speech.

It is commonly known that we Jews refer to Hebrew as Lashon Kodesh, the holy language. One can point to the fact that the Bible, our most Sacred possession, was written in Hebrew to confirm Hebrew's claim to holiness. This fact alone justifies this special title. Our Rabbis however give us a deeper insight into the holiness of Hebrew when they inform us that Hebrew is the language of Creation itself. When G‑d uttered the phrase "Let there be light (or)" the Hebrew word or does not simply describe light - it is light. Unlike humankind, G‑d's "speech" remains in place eternally. Thus it is that this eternal "speech" of G‑d stating the Hebrew word or allows light to exist for us and for every generation before and after us. As we say in our daily prayers prior to the recitation of the Shma "He who renews in goodness each and every day the act of Creation"

For Jews, d'varim (words), speech is a Sacred activity. Is it any wonder then that d'varim shares a common root with davar, something of substance as in the Hebrew phrase baal davar, a person one must reckon with? While our speech cannot sustain a creation, it is the most precious vehicle we have in expressing our views to another, in playing a significant role in the interplay of ideas and concepts the result of which will shape the future of humankind.

My childhood was filled with constant reminders regarding how I expressed myself. I vividly recall when a commercial aired on TV which contained the word ain't. This began a terrible controversy in the United States. Folks lined up on both sides of the issue. There were those, led by the education establishment, that pointed to this improper word usage on national TV as the segue for the lowering of standards of speech in our country. In retrospect they seem to have been right on the mark. Proper command of the English language, proper use of words is an antiquated art. Few in America today, can express themselves in a manner that draws the attention of others. Language, the most unique characteristic of the human being, has been neglected. Our schools turn out youngsters who simply cannot express their ideas in a clear and cogent fashion.

Oh, I know what you're thinking - I'm a little behind the times. Why can't I simply accept that the world changes and that proper usage of words, good sentence structure, a working knowledge of grammar are not the immediate concern of our society. After all, between spell check, Grammatik, and dozens of other available programs on our computer, we can let the computer clean up our language!

Do you remember President Franklin Roosevelt or his cousin President Theodore Roosevelt? Boy could they turn a phrase. People were mesmerized by the way they could literally create a tapestry of words! Their ideas, couched in eloquent oratory, made them true leaders of society. And more recently - The Rev. Martin Luther King. When Dr. King spoke of his dream, of his seeing the other side of the mountain, I could feel, I could actually see the exultation, the sense of promise for all of us when together we would realize this panoramic scene of justice and brotherly love so beautifully depicted in his words. D'varim - words - their usage and form do matter.

Not too many years ago when Rabbis were not expected to deliver weekly sermons the Jewish community boasted a special individual - an itinerant preacher who would come to town to rekindle the spiritual fervor of the community. The Magid would use fiery discourse peppered with suitable quotes from our Torah and Rabbinical sources coupled with wondrous stories of our Zadikkim, our righteous ones, to create a Heavenly atmosphere in the community. Gone were the day to day cares and in their place the mind's eye could see the day of redemption but around the corner. One could hear the Heavenly host praising G‑d and could feel oneself in their presence. Individuals left the Magid rejewvinated, positive about life and their commitment to G‑d's Word. It was a special occasion for all to hear the words of the Magid. D'varim - words - their usage and form do matter.

As many of you know my Congregation - Agudas Achim North Shore Congregation, is the spiritual home to a large number of Jewish seniors who emigrated from the former Soviet Union. They come from another world - a world in which the use of language is still considered a special art. At meetings, in small groups, each individual is ever cognizant of the importance of words. At our Passover Seder those who read English at the Seder tend to mumble. Not our brothers and sisters from the former Soviet Union! They rise, push out their chests and read their selections in Russian with clarity and feeling. They understand the importance of the spoken word. D'varim - words - their usage and form do matter. A loved one passes away. Depression, deep hurt surround us. As we sit shiva individuals come and go each attempting to express to us some measure of consolation and hope. And then there is that rare individual whose words captivate us, assuage our pain and set our mind and our hearts on a more positive path. It may have been a simple statement. It may have been an insight into our loved one's life or into life itself. More often it is the words used to express these ideas that penetrate through the dark veil of mourning that engulfs us. D'varim - words - their usage and form do matter.

And so as we begin reading D'varim, begin reading the words that Moses used to inspire the Jews in the wilderness, those very words that have inspired generations of our People to this very day, let us all recommit ourselves to the art of speaking. For it is the vehicle by which we can reach the heart and soul of another. Words spoken in clarity and beauty can, more than any other faculty in our possession, change the hearts and minds of others. Like Moses of old we must through our words ever depict that wonderful and loving society that can be crafted if all will heed the ultimate words - the words of G‑d Himself.