This week's Torah reading is the third from the Book of Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Torah. The name Deuteronomy come from the Greek, meaning Second Law, because it follows the first set of laws in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, repeating and expanding upon them, including a slightly altered version of the Ten Commandments. But the Hebrew name for the fifth book of Moses is Devarim, which means Words. So if we want to use this book's real name, not the ancient equivalent of its Ellis Island name, we would refer to it as the Book of Words.
In ancient times, books did not have titles, but were known by the first few key terms of the text, and Devarim begins with, "These are the words that Moses spoke to all of Israel on the other side of the Jordan." Taken together, the literal translation of the Hebrew names of the five books of the Torah are
- In the Beginning (Genesis)
- Names (Exodus)
- And He Called (Leviticus)
- In the Dessert (Numbers) and
- Words (Deuteronomy).
I want to point out that the names of three out of the five books refer to forms of communication: Names, And He Called, and Words. And I think it only fitting that the final summation of the Torah is the Book of Words. After all, In the Beginning, God begins the labor of Creation with words, with the speech act, Yehi Or, Let there be light. And it is through God's command, in the form of words, that light is first created.
The first thing we learn about God is that God uses words. And what else could it mean when it says that God creates the first human being in God's own likeness? Not that we look like God, because God cannot be seen. But God can be heard, human beings can hear God's voice calling to them, and we are like God in being given the gift of words. It follows that the first thing that Adam does after he is created by God, the first assignment given to him by God, is to name all the animals.
God speaks to Adam and Eve, to Cain and Noah, to Abraham and Moses. The first set of stone tablets containing God's commandments, the stone tablets that Moses shattered when he came down from Mount Sinai and saw his people worshiping the golden calf, were written by God, inscribed by the finger of God according to the Torah. The second set of tablets were not written directly by God. They were only dictated by God to Moses. Moses was then acting in the likeness of God in writing down God's Law.
The first prohibition in the Ten Commandments is against worshiping other gods, and the second is against making graven images, making any likeness of anything that exists on earth, in the waters, or in the heavens. This commandment is linked to the prohibition against the worship of false gods, and idolatry, and throughout the Torah and Tanach we find a polemic against idol worship.
But the prohibition against images goes beyond their worship; it extends to their creation. Why else would this be, except for the fact that images compete with words for our attention. Images compete with words as ways of representing our world. Images help us to visualize, and visualizing is a mental activity that we have in common with animals. Words, on the other hand, give us uniquely human tools for thought.
It is worth recalling the story of Helen Keller, who lost both her sight and her hearing when she was only 19 months old, and was unable to communicate as a young child. She only learned language through the dedication of her teacher, Anne Sullivan, who used a method of spelling words through the sense of touch. Keller learned the method, but for a long time didn't understand the meaning of the words, didn't understand that they represented the names of things in her environment. The breakthrough came on April 5th, 1887, when Sullivan took the then seven-year-old to a water pump. As Helen Keller described the event in her autobiography:
As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten—a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that ‘w-a-t-e-r’ meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away.
Words unleash our human potential, and beyond learning the name for that wonderful cool something she experienced in that moment, she would learn that that same word represents the liquid we drink from a glass, and bathe in, that falls from the sky, that fills ponds, lakes, rivers, and oceans, and that turns to snow and ice when the temperature drops. The concept of water in general, as a category that includes a wide variety of experiences and phenomena, is impossible to convey in an image, a likeness.
The same is true for rules, for laws, for commandments, because they are generalizations. An image can depict a specific incident in which a theft occurs, but it cannot portray the abstract idea that it is wrong to steal the property of others. And consider the fact that so many of our laws and commandments are prohibitions, rules that say, you shall not do something, shall not engage in a particular activity. There is no way to produce a likeness of the concept of not, or no, or negation. There is no likeness of the number zero, no image that resembles the absence of something. These are all abstract concepts, as is the idea of one God who cannot be seen, who is not tied to a particular location, who is everywhere, all-powerful, all-knowing.
The prohibition against image-thinking is an effort to get us to use our words, and thereby to engage our higher mental functions, to expand our intellectual capacities, to open the door to more abstract thought, and thereby to accept a new form of religion based on monotheism, and the pursuit of justice through the rule of law.
So we destroyed our idols and replaced them with Torah scrolls, rejected the image and embraced the word. And we were among the Semitic peoples who developed the first form of alphabetic writing in the ancient world, and used the aleph-bet to construct the first fully formed legal code, to develop a higher form of ethics than had ever been known, to revolutionize the conception of the sacred and the divine, and to compose the first form of historical narrative. We became the first people of the book, but we remained people of the ear, not the eye.
When the ancient Greeks adopted the alphabet and adapted it to their culture, they placed an emphasis on the visual. And that emphasis became one of the primary characteristics of western civilization. Most of our figures of speech that employ visual metaphors come from ancient Greece, so when we talk or write about our thought processes and ways of knowing, we say things like, the way that I look at things, the way that I see it, from my perspective, from my point of view, this peculiar way of talking about our mental processes comes from the ancient Greeks. And so, we talk about a process of reflection, observation, about self-image, about having vision, foresight, hindsight, and insight, or about being blind . From image we get the word imagination, and the etymological root of the word idea come from the Greek verb for to see, the same root as video. We speak of in the first place, the second place, and third place, and I don't know about you, but I've never been able to visit these places, or find them on the map. Even the word topic comes from the Greek word for place, the same root as topography, topology, and topiary.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his discussion of this week's parsha, makes note of this disparity, and writes:
Judaism, by contrast, is a culture of the ear more than the eye. As Rabbi David Cohen, the disciple of Rav Kook known as 'the Nazirite', pointed out in his book, Kol ha-Nevuah, the Babylonian Talmud consistently uses the metaphor of hearing. So when a proof is brought, it says Ta shma, 'Come and hear.' When it speaks of inference it says, Shema mina, 'Hear from this.' When someone disagrees with an argument, it says Lo shemiyah leih, 'he could not hear it.' When it draws a conclusion it says, Mashma, 'from this it can be heard.' Maimonides calls the oral tradition, Mipi hashemua, 'from the mouth of that which was heard.' In Western culture understanding is a form of seeing. In Judaism it is a form of listening.
The Hebrew word shema, so familiar to us as the beginning of the watchword of our faith, is root of all these terms, and as Rabbi Sacks relates,
Shema is one of the key words of the book of Devarim, where it appears no less than 92 times. It is, in fact, one of the key words of Judaism as a whole. It is central to the two passages that form the first two paragraphs of the prayer we call the Shema, one in last week’s parsha, the other in this week’s.
And he goes on to explain,
At the most basic level, Shema represents that aspect of Judaism that was most radical in its day: that God cannot be seen. He can only be heard. Time and again Moses warns against making or worshipping any physical representation of the Divine. As he tells the people: It is a theme that runs through the Bible. Moses insistently reminds the people that at Mount Sinai: “The Lord spoke to you out of the fire. You heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice” (Deut. 4:12).
Our embrace of the ear over the eye is fundamental to our tradition and identity as Jews. When we recite the Shema and our other prayers, we do so as a community, a congregation, together as one. This is true whenever we sing together, or chant, or recite, or even when we listen. But when we read in silence, even if we all are reading the same passage at the same time, we become individuals, separated and isolated from one another.
When we read from the Torah, we read it out loud. It is meant to be heard. And most of our prayers are said out loud, and are composed in the first person plural, not singular. We mostly pray as a collective, as we, as us, not as I and me. On Yom Kippur, we atone for our sins together, not just individually, taking responsibility for our families, communities, nations, for our people and for humanity as a whole. It is no accident that the word audience is a singular noun, while the word readers we all know to be plural.
We do acknowledge the importance of the individual and the role of individuality, the uniqueness of every single person. The idea of law introduced to the world the idea of equality before the law, equality as individuals. But our tradition does not go overboard in emphasizing individualism, not the way that western culture as a whole has, and American culture in particular, to the detriment of our sense of community.
The fact that Jewish culture remained a culture of the ear is reflected in the sometimes half-serious way that we refer to ourselves as the tribe, as members of the tribe. We did not, in fact, sever all connection to the tribal way of life, as literate and urbane as we have become. In this sense, we remain connected to one another, we remain in touch with one another.
When Helen Keller was asked, if she had a choice, would she rather be blind or deaf, she answered blind, because people are kinder to individuals who have lost their sight. Without vision, we still remain connected to other people, through conversation, through speech and hearing. When we lose our ability to listen, we become isolated not only from an entire dimension of our environment, but more painfully, from one another.
Vision distances us from our world, leads us to treat the objects in our environment as things, and to objectify other people as well. It places us in what Martin Buber referred to as I-It relationships, in contrast to the I-You relationships that are associated with being in dialogue with others, with responding to others as persons just like ourselves, others
who experience the same kind of subjectivity as our own, with empathy.
This distinction also informs our tradition of written law, of what is expected of us in response to God's commandments. Rabbi Sacks explains that the word shema is actually untranslatable. Yes, we translate the prayer as Hear O Israel, but that is only one possible way to render it in English. As he explains,
It means many things: to hear, to listen, to pay attention, to understand, to internalise and to respond. It is the closest biblical Hebrew comes to a verb that means “to obey.”
Rabbi Sacks later goes on to explain,
What Moses is telling us throughout Devarim is that God does not seek blind obedience. The fact that there is no word for ‘obedience’ in biblical Hebrew, in a religion of 613 commands, is stunning in itself (modern Hebrew had to borrow a verb, letzayet, from Aramaic). He wants us to listen, not just with our ears but with the deepest resources of our minds.
According to Rabbi Sacks, when Moses says in this week's parsha, "If you indeed heed my commandments which I charge you today, to love Adonai your God and worship him with all your heart and all your soul" (Deut. 11:13), what he is essentially saying is, "If you listen—and I mean really listen."
Listening for that still, small voice that in our tradition comes from God, and listening to each other, has become increasingly more challenging when we are surrounded by so much noise. There is the noise pollution from traffic, and trains, and airplanes and helicopters, and the sounds of construction and machinery. There is the noise that comes from radio and television, from our smart phones and tablets, and all of our devices and gadgets. And there is the noise we generate ourselves, when we talk at each other, shout at each other, and refuse to listen to each other.
In this last great speech that Moses delivers to the children of Israel in the Book of Words, he asks us to listen, and to remember what we have heard. It is not enough to write things down, to record them in a book. Written records are not memory. Memory is not a thing, not an object, it is an action, an act of remembering. And the most powerful way to perform this act, to remember, is to remember not alone but with others, to remember together. The most powerful form of memory is commemoration. We remember together when we speak, when say it out loud, when we tell our stories.
Stories help us to remember. They take a bunch of isolated events and bring them together, connect them to give them form, organize them and put them in some kind of order, and help us make sense by providing a coherent framework for what may otherwise seem like the random chaos of life. And so Moses tells the Israelites the story of what they have already experienced, what they already know, the events of their lives. He takes their experiences, and turns them into a story. He does so, so that they can continue to remember those events, to retell them, and keep them alive. The story he tells them is the story we continue to tell to ourselves, and our children. It is the story of God's signs and wonders, God's mighty hand and outstretched arm, and above all God's words, bestowed upon a humble people, nomads and slaves, a people often ungrateful, disobedient, and sinful. A people whose only redeeming quality is the capacity, sometimes, to use our words, to speak, to read and write, to tell stories, and to listen.