Devarim – sticks and stones
This week we begin the final book of the Torah, Deuteronomy or Devarim which means words in Hebrew. We are standing at the Jordan, waiting to cross over and enter the promised land. Moses will never make that crossing, and he chooses to prepare the people by recounting the stories of the trials and hardships that brought them to this moment. We are called the people of the book, we should be called the people of the story; the people of words. We recount our history at every chance, for good reasons. We say of the Holocaust’s racism, bigotry and murder “never again”. How to avoid it if it fades from memory? How will our children remember our history if we don’t retell it?
It is all about communication, though, isn’t it? And we strive for the right words to contain our feelings, to express our desires, to describe our history. And this week a Jewish girl named Aly Raisman did her brilliant Olympic floor routine to Hava Negila on the 40th anniversary of the slaughter of the Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. Her own re-telling, her own “never forget”.
In our daily lives we use words carelessly, we toss them around with little thought. But when we have strong feelings, we struggle to find the right words, words that are adequate. And nowhere do words seem so careless as in our current presidential politics. Things are being said that would have previously been unthinkable, and should be still. The words reek of that racism and bigotry and give rise, as historically, to violence.
Moses chooses his moment to recount, to use words to prepare the people, for building, for memory, for empowering them, for providing rules/structure. Shouldn’t we take this moment to disavow the childhood admonition about sticks and stones? To remember that words can hurt us, can be destructive? We should take Moses’ example and use our words, and our recounting, to empower each other. In our national politic we should use our words to disavow ignorance and hate, deception and lies. In our personal lives we should use our words to strengthen and honor each other. We need all our strength as we stand ever on the banks of the Jordan, waiting to enter the promised land hand in hand, a people of words.