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Jewish Journal

Heavenly Conversation Parashat Vaetchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11)

by Rabbi Elazar Muskin

July 20, 2010 | 6:28 pm

I was at LAX on a Tuesday night, catching a red-eye to New York. The TSA agent announced repeatedly, “Passengers, make sure you have your boarding passes in your hand or you will cause a delay for all the other people in line ... and they will not like you.” Each time a passenger obliged, the agent would scream, “Thank you, that’s the way to travel!”

I expected the same treatment when it was my turn.

“So did you have a nice Shabbos?” he asked quietly.

You can imagine my shock.

“Why, yes, thank you,” I said, adding, “and how was yours?”

“I am not Jewish,” he said, “but I had a lox and bagel sandwich on Saturday morning. Does that count for enjoying Shabbat?”

I smiled and said, “You know what? The next time you see a rabbi come through this way, ask him what he thinks.”

“Great idea,” he said.

This man taught me how precious relationships are. He wanted me to realize that he recognized I was an observant Jew. What motivated him, I do not know. But what he wanted, I suspect, was a relationship — albeit one that would last for just a moment.

Relationships often involve complicated human dynamics. Perhaps the most complicated is the one we have with our Creator. This very fact is reflected in a most interesting place in this week’s Torah reading. For the second time in the Torah, we read the Ten Commandments, known in Hebrew as the Aseret HaDibrot. One of the famous questions asked about the Ten Commandments is: Why is it called Aseret HaDibrot, which really means Ten Sayings, and not Asara Maamarot, which means Ten Comments?

Furthermore, why does the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (5:1) describe God creating the world with the expression Ten Maamarot and not Ten Dibrot? Aren’t the Ten Commandments on par with the creation of the world? Aren’t they as important as the creation story? If they are, then they should have been called Ten Maamarot, reflecting this fact.

In a brilliant analysis, one commentator suggested that the word amira in the Bible mandates no relationship between the one who is speaking and the one who is being spoken to. The other Hebrew word for conversation, vayidaber, however, is always predicated on a relationship between speaker and listener. This explains why when the word vayidaber is used in the Torah it is followed by the Hebrew words im or et, which mean “with.” This does not exist when the Torah uses vayomer. In addition, whenever there are biblical soliloquies, they are introduced with the word vayomer, because there is no relationship being forged between the speaker and others. The biblical speaker is speaking only to himself.

It is with this background that we can appreciate why the Mishnah Pirkei Avot states that God created the world with Ten Maamarot and not Ten Dibrot. At that point in creation, since man was yet to be created, the Bible used the expression of vayomer. But when God revealed the Torah and gave the Jewish people the Ten Commandments, God addressed us with the expression of dibrot because God wanted a relationship with us. He didn’t just speak; He wanted us to listen.

If this is true of our relationship with God, it is all the more so with our fellow man. The last prophet, Malachi, declared, “Then the God-fearing men spoke [nidbru] one to another and the Lord hearkened and heard it. And a book of remembrance was written before Him for those who feared the Lord and for those who valued His name highly” (Malachi 3:16).

God takes note when we engage each other with speech that creates relationships — the glue of human survival.

A colleague recounted for me that his first pulpit was in Lowell, Mass. Because he was close to Boston, where Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the late talmudic scholar and rabbinic leader, resided, he took advantage of this proximity to ask the rabbi difficult questions. On one occasion, as he had a number of complicated questions, he asked Rabbi Soloveitchik for a late-night appointment. Rabbi Soloveitchik listened to each question and in five minutes quickly resolved each issue. It was clear to my colleague that what he thought were difficult issues, Rabbi Soloveitchik saw as very simple. But the meeting didn’t end. It lasted almost another hour because Rabbi Soloveitchik inquired about each of my colleague’s family members; he asked probing questions, wanting to know how each person was doing.

When the meeting finally ended, Rabbi Soloveitchik said two things that my colleague claims shaped his rabbinate. The rabbi said, “Thank you for coming. And please, keep in touch.” What was important for Rabbi Soloveitchik was the human relationship. He wanted a “vayidaber” relationship and not just a “vayomer” one.

The most basic relationship that a human has is his ability to speak with his fellow man. When we cherish those moments, then we imitate the Divine Himself.

Elazar Muskin is senior rabbi of Young Israel of Century City (yicc.org), an Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson area.

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