By Bettijane Eisenpreis
“These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan…”
Words are very important in the history of our people. What we call the Ten Commandments are called in Hebrew the Ten Words. We do not conceive of God in pictures. We may admire Michaelangelo’s painting of Creation on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but showing any visual representation of the sacred is so abhorrent to us that for millenia Jewish art consisted only of decorative motifs – fruit, flowers, etc. – and shied away from the human form. Look at the stained glass windows in Temple Emanu-El and you will notice that, beautiful as they are, they do not depict any man, woman or child.
It is entirely appropriate that this final book of the Torah should begin “These are the words.” The whole Torah is made up of words, of course, but these are very special words. Some would believe that they are the direct word of God, as dictated to Moses. As modern Jews, we believe they are the words of inspired people, so special and so holy that they have survived for millenia, first as spoken words and then on paper, and have become “the watchwords of our people.”
From the beginning, God communicated in words. He said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. Creation, as described in Genesis, was a verbal phenomenon. “God said” is a phrase that appears at the very beginning of the Torah, and continues throughout the entire Bible.
The entire Torah is a masterpiece of communication – as well as miscommunication – between God and man, and especially between God and Moses. In Parashah Ki Tisa (Exodus 33:19), Moses asks God for a glimpse of God’s face, and God replies that no one can look at His face and live. If Moses, who is the only person ever to speak “face to face” to God, cannot see the Divine presence, we know that no one else ever will. But hearing God’s words is another matter.
The rabbi of the synagogue where my son attended nursery school once warned us parents not to take our toddlers too seriously when they said they heard God speaking to them. “It is probably that extra piece of birthday cake the child ate that is rumbling around in his or her tummy,” he said. True – most of the people, whether five years old or older, who claim to hear God should be taken with a grain of salt. Yet there are times that I feel I am communicating with the Divine, sometimes when I am in the depths of despair, sometimes when I am simply sitting quietly in Temple. I feel a sense of profound peace, the “still, small voice” the Torah describes.
We are a People of the Book, a people of words. True, words are nothing without deeds, but the words, the message, must come first. And we must listen to those words.
“Sh’ma Yisrael,” the Torah tells us, Listen, you People of the Book. If you listen with reverence and awe, you may hear the Word of God.