Eleh hadevarim, the book begins: “These are the words which Moses spoke….” And this week, we read about hadevarim ha’eleh, “these words” which we are to set upon our hearts, teach to our children, speak of at home and on our way. Eleh hadevarim. Hadevarim Ha’eleh.
But which “words” are the ones that Moses really “spoke?” Which words are the ones that we need to set upon our hearts, write on our doorposts, and bind to our arms? Several answers come to mind:
- Maybe hadevarim ha’eleh refers to the entire book of Deuteronomy. It is called sefer hadevarim, after all.
- Maybe hadevarim ha’eleh refers not to the whole book, but just to the brief section being spoken by Moses right in that moment. “Hear, O Israel: YHWH our God, YHWH is One! Love YHWH your God with all your heart, and your soul, and your might. And now, set these words upon your heart….”
- Or maybe hadevarim ha’eleh refers to a certain set of devarim, “utterances” — Ten, to be precise — which Moses had just reviewed for the people in an earlier chapter.
Whatever the answer, it’s not an idle question. Which words we ascribe to Moses, and through him to God, matter. Which words we choose to set upon our hearts matters greatly. And the ones we choose to teach to our children…could anything matter more?
This week, two acts of terror were committed by people whose external appearance and mode of practice say to the world, “religious Jews.” Each of them would claim to be an adherent of hadevarim ha’eleh, and would claim that it was precisely eleh hadevarim that led them to act. One person or group of people burned a West Bank home and the people inside, including a Ali Saad Dawabshe, aged eighteen months. Another wielded a kitchen knife at the Jerusalem Pride Parade, stabbing six and killing Shira Banki, aged sixteen.
Once, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, heard his grandson crying in his crib in the middle of the night. Rising to comfort him, he noticed his son (the boy’s father) engrossed in study by candlelight. After he’d calmed the baby and gotten him back to sleep, he approached his son.
“What are you learning, son?”
“I’m learning Torah?”
“I don’t think so. It isn’t Torah if it makes you deaf to the cries of a child.”
It isn’t Torah if it makes you deaf to the cries of child. How much the more so is it not Torah if it leads you to take up a knife, or matches and gasoline, to kill children!
How do the words get so twisted? How does the book of which we sing that “all her paths are peace” become, for some, a license to kill? It happens to all religions, it seems. Our job is to name it when we see it, and to be bold in countering the claim.
If you want to know what hadevarim ha’eleh really sound like, there are some pretty great teachers in this room tonight. They’ll be taking the pulpit over the coming weeks as they become b’nai mitzvah, and they will each draw life-ennobling lessons out of the Book of Deuteronomy. They are the antidote to the killers, and their words are the counterpoint to the twisted message those killers would have us read. Even more than their words, their actions are the antidote. Klara, whose mission is to put books in the hands of children. Ike, who’s organized a forum about the funding inequalities in our public school system. Daniel and Noah, so passionate about justice and mercy for humans and animals alike. This is it means to set hadevarim ha’eleh upon our hearts and teach them to our children.
This is the Torah for which we stand at Judea Reform. And this is the Torah we will literally take to the streets over the next several weeks. I hope you’ll join me on August 31 as I carry a Torah scroll as part of a cadre of Reform Rabbis, now 150 strong, who are marching (in relay) every step from Selma, Alabama to Washington, D.C. as part of the NAACP’s Journey for Justice, and carrying a scroll on that journey. And a few weeks later, on September 26, we’ll go out with our own Torah scroll and march as Judea Reform Congregation in Durham’s Pride Parade.
By standing against hatred and bigotry, against rights curtailed, against justice delayed and denied, we will bring hadevarim ha’eleh to life.