Deut. 1:1 – 3:22
Rabbi Jack Luxemburg
“Zoom, Zoom, Zoom, Zim, Anu D’varim..” Not a line of Torah from this week’s portion, D’varim (Deut. 1:1-3 – 3:22), but a line from a Hebrew children’s song. It means, “Zoom, Zoom, Zoom Zim, we are bees!”. Something that has always interested me is that the Hebrew root Dalet-Bet-Resh (d-v-r), gives us the meanings “word”, “thing” … and “bee”! Other conjugations of the same root give us, “speak/speaker”, “wilderness”, and “pestilence”. And the names of two out of the five books of Torah are derived from this root – D’varim (Deuteronomy) and BaMidbar (Numbers).
We can assume that as the Hebrew language evolved, our ancestors perceived some connection among these meanings, derived from the same root. We can easily understand, for example, the connection between “word”, “speaker” and even the Hebrew name of the book of Deuteronomy (D’varim). This fifth book of the Torah is about the final five discourses (words) delivered to our ancestors by Moses (speaker) prior to his death and before our ancestors are to enter the promised land of Eretz Yisrael. Hence the name of the book, D’varim, the words spoken by Moses to convey the “things” that he most wanted to recount to them at this critical moment in his life and in the history of our folk and faith.
Interestingly, the first of these discourses begins with a cautionary recount and a “stinging” rebuke. After a bit of preamble, Moses recalls the story of the twelve spies who, very soon after our ancestors left Egypt, venture into the land of Israel to scout it out. Upon their return, ten of the twelve give a report so dispiriting that, despite God’s promise of success, our ancestors resisted entering the land. Only two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, give a promising report, encouraging our ancestors to have both courage and faith. The result is that our people wander in the wilderness (midbar) for forty years, until a new generation is ready to enter the promised land.
All this is as if to answer a question posed by the people who stood before him: Why did we have to wander around in the wilderness for forty years? And Moses’ response underscores for them the power of words. The words of the ten spies so discouraged the earlier generation, that despite all that they had experienced of God’s power and purpose, they still shrank for the opportunity to enter the land of Israel. Like bees, the words of the spies stung and poisoned the spirit of our ancestors, weakening their faith and resolve. Consequently, they remained in the wilderness (midbar — the Hebrew possibly derived from a contraction meaning, “without voice” or “wordless”, connoting emptiness and uncivilized). With this in mind, we can even look back on the book of Numbers, in Hebrew B’midbar or “in the wilderness” and note that the whole book is a description of the response to being in an empty, unstructured environment – both geographically and spiritually.
The interplay between the words and meaning derived from this simple three-letter root, d-v-r, suggests several different lines of interpretation and commentary on the text of this week’s Torah Portion. If nothing else, it reminds us how powerful spoken words can be. How they can create “things” by naming them – objects, ideas, realities, circumstances. How quickly words can spread, pollinating or poisoning. We are reminded that when words are used to falsify; when thoughtful words are withheld and people confront each other with either silence or slander, the results are certain to be dispiriting and leave was wandering in search of truth, meaning and direction.
I think Moses is addressing this new generation of our people at the end of his life to encourage them to be mindful of the power of words (d’varim) because it will be the power of the words spoken by our people in conversation, study and prayer; the words found in our sacred texts to be poured over, discussed and interpreted through the ages, that will give strength to the Jewish spirit and direction to our individual lives and communal history. With this in mind, we can even find a deeper meaning in that children’s song – Zoom, Zoom, Zoom, Zim, anu d’varim — we are, to a great extent, d’varim, the words we speak and the things we value.