August 11, 2005
Hearing Is Believing
Parshat Devarim (Deuteronomy1:1- 3:22)
Summer photos are most revealing. Our family's photos almost always reveal my absence for the simple reason that I am usually the designated family photographer.
During one vacation in the Northwest, we stopped at a beautiful place called Horseshoe Bay. As I was getting ready to take a family photo, a lady called out, "Let me take the picture. That way all of you will be in it."
What a novel idea I thought. The lady, accompanied by her college-age son, explained that she always offers families to do this.
As I handed her the camera and waited for her to say, "smile," we were surprised to hear her call out, "achat, stayim, v'shalosh," Hebrew for "one, two and three." We couldn't believe our ears. After seeing our startled looks, the lady explained that she grew up in Vancouver and went to the local synagogue's afternoon school where she learned Hebrew. When she saw the kippah on my head she thought it might be worth a try to see if she still remembered any Hebrew after so many years.
Just those few words united us with Jews we had never met before. Indeed the power of words is as ancient as our people. When expressed at the right time and in the right place they create identity and connection in ways nothing else can accomplish.
Perhaps this idea motivated our rabbis when they searched for a name for the fifth book of the Torah. In English this book is called Deuteronomy from the Greek, which means, "second law," derived from the rabbinic name for the book, Mishna Torah (repetition of the law). That name is logical, as the book represents the speeches of Moses toward the end of his life, when he evaluates the history of Israel after leaving Egypt and reviews the main laws that would guide us as we established ourselves in our own land. He even repeats the Ten Commandments in next week's portion.
By contrast, the Hebrew name for the book, Devarim, which means "words," seems to lack any logical connection outside of the fact that it comes from the opening verse, "Eleh HaDevarim" -- "These are the words...." What insight does this name offer for the last book of the Torah?
Sir Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, notes that the connection is profound because it explains the secret of our existence. Great civilizations have risen and disappeared, leaving little trace of their existence, but Israel, the smallest of nations, has survived under circumstances that should have rendered its survival impossible.
"No other nation" Sacks argues, "has preserved its identity under conditions of exile and dispersion. No other nation has preserved its identity even though its very rights of existence were often challenged in the most brutal fashion. There isn't another nation that has so consistently refused assimilation to the dominant culture or conversion to the dominant faith."
How did it happen?
Perhaps the answer is found in the fact that we are the people of the word. Our relationship with God is based on words. The Torah, which constitutes our covenant and our marriage contract with God, is based entirely on words, not on images and sight. Our most important prayer, "Shema," teaches us that hearing; not seeing is the essence of Judaism.
Rabbi Norman Lamm, in his work on the "Shema," notes, "Seeing leads to idolatry; the worshipper creates an icon to represent what he saw. Hearing, however, leads to obedience; no physical shape or form beguiles the worshipper.... He obeys the Voice who commands him."
But it wasn't only Jewish thinkers who realized this unique Jewish characteristic. Lamm quotes Catholic theologian Theodore Roszak, who noted that the Jews "...heard as no one else has ever heard. They became history's most alert listeners."
We are a people of the word and, therefore, the decision to call the fifth and final book of the Torah, Devarim, was neither random nor insignificant. In a single word it taught us the secret of our survival. Hearing, for the Jew, is, indeed, believing.
Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.