Published in the Baltimore Jewish Times Parsha Ha'azinu
Words have the power to be an instrument of peace—or to cut like a knife.
We find many incidents in the Bible illustrating the power of speech. The serpent in the Garden of Eden causes temptation through speech; Miriam develops leprosy after speaking lashon hara (gossip) about Moshe; and Korach’s rebellious army is consumed inside the "mouth of the earth."On the positive side, in the Song of Songs, King Solomon describes a woman’s virtue: "She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the law of kindness is on her tongue."
This week’s Torah portion, Ha’azinu, which means "listen," shows us the value of effective communication. And we discover what every toastmaster graduate knows: it’s all in the presentation.
Leading the Jewish people toward the promised land of Israel in his final days, Moshe eloquently delivers one of the most stirring orations in the Torah. He encourages the Jewish nation to overcome difficulties and guides them wisely to choose a great future.
According to the Midrash, in childhood Moshe developed a speech impediment. To spare him embarrassment, his brother, Aaron, delivered many of Moshe’s discourses. But for his farewell address, Moshe spoke directly to the Jewish people. His words were fierce and poetic, so that they would be remembered and insure that the Jewish people would fully understand their covenant with G-d. Moshe’s oration in this week’s parashah recaps the first four books of the Torah. As he speaks, we retrace the steps of his personal life journey and witness his spiritual growth. Moshe Rabbeinu, our teacher, shows us that it is never too late to improve oneself, even at the very end of life.
From his early years as a stuttering toddler, to the moral tests of his youth in Pharaoh’s palace, to his trials as leader of a wandering people, and to his ultimate, inspiring address to the nation at the threshold of the Holy Land, Moshe demonstrates that a human being can climb mountains, overcome obstacles, and master fears. How is this accomplished? As Moshe himself stresses in his final speech, one can conquer hardships and achieve self-mastery through connecting to G-d and striving to live according to Torah. Furthermore, patience, life experience and confidence building skills enhance personal success.
What we say and how we say things, matters. Good communication—the right choice of words and inflection—brings people together and allows us to live and work in harmony. When people cannot communicate, chaos ensues, as it did at the Tower of Babel, when G-d caused the people to speak countless different languages. During the time of theSanhedrin, the supreme rabbinical court, judges were expected to know numerous languages, so that justice and peace could prevail.
Communication, of course, goes beyond words. We communicate non-verbally using our hands, eyes, body language, and tone of voice.
Today we communicate instantaneously through e-mail and with cell phones. We are never out of reach or out of touch. Many people look forward to Shabbat so that they can turn off their electronic gadgets and enjoy privacy and quiet.
During the High Holidays, we initiated a marathon of spiritual communication with G-d. We confessed our sins out loud, promising to improve our behavior and refine our souls. To ensure another chapter in the Book of Life, we asked forgiveness from those we may have wronged, intentionally or not, and forgave those who mistreated us. Will we have the courage to change our ways?
From the actions and words of Moshe, one of our greatest leaders, we can find the strength to surmount difficulties, real or imagined. Trusting that G-d wants the best for us, we can rise to the challenges He places before us, for they are temporary and are ultimately for the good.
When we emerge from Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, ready to make the transition from deep introspection to the outward joy of Sukkot, may we all find that our communication with G-d has strengthened us spiritually. May our prayers be fulfilled with true peace in our homes and throughout the world. Shabbat Shalom.
Rabbi Weisblum is the spiritual leader of Kneseth Israel Congregation in Annapolis. He is a renowned musical composer and author of the popular Table Talk: Biblical Questions and Answers and Ruth Talk: Questions and Answers on the Book of Ruth.