a manner of speaking
The Hebrew name of the book of Devarim, meaning ‘words’, emphasises that the book is precisely that, a record of the last speeches given by Moses to the people. And perhaps there is a special irony that Moses, who missed out on his life’s dream of entering the land of Israel because he refused to speak when commanded to, now stands on the border of Israel doing nothing but talk – for an entire book of the five books of the Bible.
The Bible introduces Moses’ long oration as follows:
“Beyond the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses began to expound (‘be’er’) the Torah, saying…” (Devarim I:5)
Moses has spoken to the people many times before, and every time the Bible has used the same verb – “diber” – to describe his speech. But now, at his final moments, the Bible uses a new verb, never used before in the bible: ‘be’er’ – meaning to expound or explain. In what way is Moses speech now different to all those he has made before?
Three commentators suggest three different reasons why speaking to the children of Israel on the verge of leaving the wilderness and entering the land of Israel requires Moses to use a new and different form of expression.
• Abraham Ibn Ezra (Spain, C12th) suggests that a new verb is required because Moses is speaking to a new audience. In the past Moses has been speaking to the generation of Israelites who left Egypt themselves. Now that that generation has died in the wilderness, Moses addresses a new generation who do not have first-hand experience of the Exodus. No longer is it sufficient for Moses to “tell them”; now he needs to “explain to them”. As Ibn Ezra comments:
Moses began to explain to the children who were born in the wilderness the events that had occurred to their parents, and to tell them the commandments that their fathers had heard from the mouth of the Lord.
•Jerusalemite scholar Rabbi Shlomo Fisher has suggested that the change in Moses’ manner of speaking is a result of his sense of his impending death. He will no longer be around to ensure the continuity of the tradition, and now must teach not simply so the people can understand for themselves, but so that they themselves can pass on the tradition. Noting that the word to expound is identical to the Hebrew word for a well (be’er), he explains: “Until now Moses has related to the people as a bor, a pit, that receives and keeps; now he treats them as a be’er, a well, which not only receives but also gives out”.
•The classic German scholar Shimshon Raphael Hirsch suggests that use of the new verb indicates that Moses was now conveying a message which was relevant not just for the Jewish people, but for the world at large. No longer a group of nomads wandering in the wilderness, the Israelites were about to enter their land and become a player on the international stage. As such, they had to be aware of the lessons they carried for humanity. Hirsch cites a Midrash on the word be’er which explains it to mean that the Torah was translated into the seventy languages of the world. Notes Hirsch: “Israel was from the very beginning to have to understand its mission for the spiritual and moral salvation of the whole of mankind”.
Every Jew is, in his or her own way, a Moses, responsible for telling the story and passing it on to future generations. This week’s reading suggests that in doing so, we should make sure that we do not simply tell our story ( diber ) but we should expound and explain it ( be’er ). As these three commentators suggest, if we do so, we will help a new generation share the experiences of the past, we will make them in turn teachers for new generations, and we will convey an awareness of the lessons of our history, not just for one people, but for all mankind.
In others’ words
“Bechol dor vador… in every generation …
In Jewish tradition, there are experiences so central to our identity, and to our mission, that we are obliged to recall them – and remember their lessons – in every generation.
In every generation at the Passover Seder, we remember the Exodus. We recognize that each and every one of us was liberated from Egypt. We recognize the horror of slavery and the value of freedom.
Every generation, we are taught, must remember that it, too, stood at Mount Sinai, accepting the moral message that the Jewish people has given to the world.
The brutal history of the 20th century has given the Jewish people a new commandment to remember.
Bechol dor vador… in every generation we have to remember the Shoah, and to recognize that we Jews – each and every one of us – were the intended victims of genocide.
It is our duty to those who came before us – and even more, to those who will come after – to ensure that this chain of remembrance is never broken.”
Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, Inauguration of Yad Vashem Museum, March 2005
On a lighter note
Two American Jews decide to sample Tel Aviv nightlife. They go to a café where an Israeli comic is entertaining an appreciative crowd in Hebrew, which neither of the Americans can speak. One of the Americans laughs uproariously with the audience. “What are you laughing at?” asks his colleague. “You don’t understand Hebrew.” “So what?” is the reply. “I trust these people!”