This Shabbat we begin the final book of the Torah, Devarim or Deuteronomy. Its opening verse reads: “These are the words (devarim) which Moshe spoke to all of Israel.” Beginning on the first day of the Hebrew month, Shvat and continuing for thirty-seven days, Moshe transmitted verbally the entire book of Devarim to the children of Israel. At the end of the thirty-seven days, he died “by the kiss of Hashem” and Hashem buried him. Knowing as he did that his death was imminent, you can be sure that the words of Devarim were spoken directly from Moshe’s heart to the people and we learn from the study of Gematria (numerical values of the Hebrew letters) that the phrase “the heart” (halev) has a value of thirty seven! Therefore, from the opening sentence of Devarim, we learn something about this wonderful gift with which we have been endowed, the gift of speech.
“These are the words…” Verbal communication is at its best when comprised of words “spoken from the heart.” Now, to be honest, much of our speaking to one another falls into the category of routine or necessity, with no thought given to whether or not our heart is in what we are saying. A certain amount of that may be inevitable in the busy work-a-day world. However, in communication with those we love — family and friends — it behooves us to remember that for our words to truly touch another’s heart, the words must emanate from our heart. This presupposes that our own hearts are at peace within ourselves and given to love, to care and to have compassion.
“These are the words…” Words have incredible power; they can hurt and they can heal; they can lift up and they can cast down; they can encourage and they can discourage; they can bring life and they can bring death. Over and over in the Torah, we are admonished in various ways to guard our tongues so that the words that flow from them will be filled with life, love, compassion, understanding and righteousness.
But it isn’t so easy, is it? Impatience, harshness, bitterness, resentment, selfishness and thoughtlessness can pour out in words that rush like a storm-driven river that destroys everything in its path.
“These are the words…” The sentence can be completed in one of two ways. In our parsha, it is a positive statement. These are the words which Moshe spoke to the children of Israel – words of Torah, words from Hashem.
“These are the words…” But what if the sentence ends differently. What if it were to read, “These are the words with which the children of Israel wound and insult one another, words which feed baseless hatred among them, words of arrogance and hatred.” Horrific thought?
As Shabbat comes to an end this week, we immediately enter into the 9th of Av, a terrible day in Jewish history. Both of our Temples were destroyed on the 9th of Av…and why? The Sages tell us that the Temples were not REALLY destroyed by invading armies. The invaders were simply the tools who carried out the judgement Israel brought upon herself. How?
We lost our Glorious Temples because of baseless hatred among ourselves. “These are the words….” Selah…
It is our tradition to fast on the 9th of Av, in mourning for the destruction of the Temple. But is this fast truly about grieving over fallen sacred stones? The prophet Isaiah addresses the real issue in the 58th chapter of his prophecy, verses 3-12:
3. “Why have we fasted, and You did not see; we have afflicted our soul and You do not know?” Behold, on the day of your fast you pursue business, and [from] all your debtors you exact [payment].
4. Behold, for quarrel and strife you fast, and to strike with a fist of wickedness. Do not fast like this day, to make your voice heard on high.
5. Will such be the fast I will choose, a day of man’s afflicting his soul? Is it to bend his head like a fishhook and spread out sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast and an acceptable day to the Lord?
6. Is this not the fast I will choose? To undo the fetters of wickedness, to untie the bands of perverseness, and to let out the oppressed free, and all perverseness you shall eliminate.
7. Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and moaning poor you shall bring home; when you see a naked one, you shall clothe him, and from your flesh you shall not hide.
8. Then your light shall break forth as the dawn, and your healing shall quickly sprout, and your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall gather you in.
9. Then you shall call and the Lord shall answer, you shall cry and He shall say, “Here I am,” if you remove perverseness from your midst, putting forth the finger and speaking wickedness.
10. And you draw out your soul to the hungry, and an afflicted soul you sate, then your light shall shine in the darkness, and your darkness shall be like noon.
11. And the Lord shall always lead you, and He shall satisfy your soul in drought, and strengthen your bones; and you shall be like a well-watered garden and like a spring of water whose water does not fail.
12. And [those coming] from you shall build ancient ruins, foundations of generations you shall erect, and you shall be called the repairer of the breaches, restorer of the paths, to dwell in.
May I propose that our fasting on Sunday should be about repentance for our verbal sins? Repentance for every time WE have used words inappropriately and incorrectly? Repentance for the loshon hora (evil speaking) that we perpetuate in our day, no differently than our forefathers did in the days of the Temple?
Mourn for the destruction of the Temple? Yes, but mourn more for WHY it was destroyed.
In Tune with Torah this week: may each of us seriously examine our use of the gift of speech, humbly repenting for words ill-spoken; and may we fast on Sunday not so much for a building made of stone, but for the “building” that Hashem truly desires – a nation, His people, whose calling is to form a LIVING TEMPLE of His Shehina (Glory) through holy living and holy speech.