By Yael Splansky

Back at the Burning Bush, God commands Moses to return to Egypt, to go before Pharaoh and deliver God’s message: “Let us go…to sacrifice to the Eternal our God” (Exodus 3:18). Moses tries to dodge the command, saying: “Please, O my lord, I have never been a man of words (Lo ish d’varim anochi), either in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant: I am slow of speech (k’vad peh), and slow of tongue (u’ch’vad lashon)” (Exodus 4:10).

Well, Moses has come a long way since then! Some forty years later, Moses delivers the longest monologue in all of Jewish history–the Book of D’varim, the “Book of Words.” He has certainly found his tongue, found his voice. The self-doubting man who once said, “I have never been a man of  words,” now launches the Book of D’varim, the Book of Words and it seems he can’t stop talking. According to our Sages, the day Moses performs this prophetic poem of Haazinu is the day of his death (Targum Yonatan on Song of Songs 1:1; Tanchuma,B’shalach 12). It is his last attempt to move them with words, to shape them into the people they are becoming.

“Give ear, O heavens, let me speak; Let the earth hear the words I utter! May my discourse come down as the rain, My speech distill as the dew, Like showers on young growth, Like droplets on the grass. For the name of the Eternal I proclaim; Give glory to our God!” (Deuteronomy 32:1–3)

The poem expresses the hope and expectation that its words will be received as eagerly as the rain is welcomed and have the same life-giving effect. Such is the power of words. The Hebrew word davar means both “word,” and “thing” or “object.” This implies that a thing is not real, is not called into existence in our world until it is named, until language is assigned to it. Adam’s first task in the Garden of Eden was to name the animals (Genesis 2:19). Attaching words to God’s creatures made them more real somehow. Thorlief Borman teaches: “The reality in the world of the Jew is determined by the word which is heard. The reality in the world of the Greek-Hellenist is determined by the thing, which is seen. For the Jew, the world of words is just as real and even more powerful than the things that exist only in the material world” (Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek, 1960).

Judaism was the first antimaterialism movement. We were instructed to smash the idols, the sacred posts, and all the pagan objects that distracted humanity from the one, immaterial God. For all the Hebrew Bible’s emphasis on the Tabernacle and the altar sacrifices, the Temple, and the Land, even more significant were the words recited there, the sacred texts read aloud there, the prayers prayed there, the songs sung there. Two thousand years without the Temple and without the Land only further focused our attention on the word. We earned our reputation as the People of the Book. We took our words with us wherever we wandered and constructed a home within them.

It’s been said many times that for the Jew, hearing is believing. “Sh’ma, Yisrael” is our central commandment. “Hear, O Israel” is the “watchword of our faith.” We are an oral and aural people. Consider the traditional halachah that a blind person qualifies as a reliable witness to give testimony in a court of law, but a deaf person does not (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Yad,Edut 9:11; Shulchan Aruch, HM 35:11). Jewish courts accept the reports of ear-witnesses over those of eye-witnesses, because in Judaism, hearing the words reveals more truth than seeing the objects.

It is easy to close our eyes. With a blink or a turn of the head, the image before us is obliterated, vanished, as if it doesn’t even exist. But for hearing people, it is not so easy to close off our ears to the surrounding reality. The reality, of which Moses speaks, of course, is the omnipresent God. Consider the custom of closing our eyes when reciting the Sh’ma. Our sense of hearing is made more acute when our vision is cut off. While we may experiment with “visual t’filah,” we must also be mindful of the second commandment of the Ten Commandments (otherwise known as Aseret HaDibrot, the Ten Words), which calls for “no images” in our spiritual pursuits (Exodus 20:4). The Jewish world has always been primarily constructed out of words written and read, words spoken, sung and heard, words brought to life through deeds.

The nineteenth century historian Heinrich Graetz crystallizes the distinction for us: “To the pagan, the divine appears within nature as something observable to the eye. He becomes conscious of it as something seen. In contrast to the Jew who knows that the divine exists beyond, outside of, and prior to nature. God reveals Himself through a demonstration of His will, through the medium of the ear. The human subject becomes conscious of the divine through hearing and obeying. Paganism sees its god, Judaism hears Him; that is, it hears the comments of His will” (see Ismar Schorsch, trans. and ed., The Structure of Jewish History and Other Essays, [New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America], 1975).

The verb lishma, “to hear,” is written many times in the Book of Deuteronomy. There is a beautiful and haunting midrash that has forever changed the way I hear the words, “Sh’ma Yisrael.” The Rabbis of old imagine that the “Yisrael” being addressed by the Sh’ma is not Israel the People, but rather Israel the Person. That is, Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel during that famous wrestling match with the angel. When Jacob was at the end of his life, he gathered his children around him. All twelve sons, representing the twelve tribes, came to his bedside. The patriarch was panic-stricken about the future. Monotheism was still new and fragile. He asked his children, “Will you remain faithful to your heritage? Will you be faithful to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?” His sons reassured him by addressing their father with his more noble name, Israel. They said: “Sh’ma, Yisrael! Hear, O Israel: Adonai is our God. Adonai alone.” Jacob was then at peace and responded in a whisper, with his last breath, “Baruch Shem K’vod Malchuto l’olam va-ed.” “Blessed be God’s ruling Name, forever and ever” (Babylonian Talmud, P’sachim 56a; D’varim Rabbah 2:35)

Every time we recite these words, “Hear O Israel”, we, too, address our ancestor, Jacob. We reassure him: Ancient father, do not fear, rest assured, we have listened to your words of wisdom all our lives. We have heard you and we, too, are steadfast and loyal to the God of those who came before us. We will not break the chain of faith, which binds one generation to the next. We will carry on in word and deed to call attention to The One Who Spoke And Brought The World Into Being.

For more on this theme, see:

  1. David Chidester, Word and Light: Seeing, Hearing and Religious Discourse (Bloomington, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1992)
  2. Noam Zion, “The Word and the Light, The Ear and the Eye” in A Different Light (Devora Publishing, 2000)

Rabbi Yael Splansky is an associate rabbi of Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto, Canada. She is the editor of Siddur Pirchei Kodesh and she is a fourth-generation Reform rabbi.