By Rabbi Kaya Stern-Kaufman
This week’s Torah portionÂ “ D’varimÂ “ opens the book of Deuteronomy, throughout which Moses delivers an exhaustive farewell speech to the people of Israel, recounting their history, reviewing many of the laws given at Sinai and adding new laws for a future life in the promised land. The portion begins with the words Eleh ha-d’varim, meaning: these are the words, that Moses spoke. From this opening statement is derived the name for the fifth book of TorahÂ “ D’varim /Deuteronomy.
Many Sages and rabbis in our tradition point out that when Moses was first initiated into the role of God’s emissary to Pharaoh, he resisted the task, claiming Lo ish d’varim anochiÂ “ “I am not a man of words.“ And yet, forty years later Moses has indeed become a man of words. In D’varim Rabba (a tenth-century collection of midrash compiled in the tenth century from much earlier material), the Rabbis explain this transformation in Moses as a healing of the tongue that was manifested through learning Torah. After receiving and learning Torah for forty years, Moses himself underwent a transformation of body and soul.
The midrash states that Moses was like a well whose pleasant water could only be drawn out little by little. The Holy One saw that Moses had the quality of faithfulness and so, repaired his tongue so that the water would flow freely and without end. And it is written in Exodus 4:12, that The Holy One responded to Moses’ protest saying, v’anokhi eheyeh im pikha, “I will be with your mouth.”
God responds to Moses saying, I will be with you in your weak place, in your wounded place. God gives Moses a task that appears too challenging for him, but God reminds Moses that he will not be alone. For, as Moses is a faithful servant, so too will God be faithful to him. God promises, “I will be with your mouth.” God promises to be with Moses to strengthen him in his weakness and Moses remains faithful to God’s unfolding process.
It is often the case that we are faced with challenges that appear beyond our capabilities. We may focus on our weaknesses, preferring to remain in the predictability of narrow straits of mitzrayim/Egypt, rather than venture out into a wilderness of change and new possibilities.
The midrash above reveals a critical understanding about change itself. The possibility for the greatest change is often hidden within the weakness itself. The repair of Moses’ tongue, of his ability to speak truth, took place because he was willing to trust in God, to trust in his destiny. Through trust in a process greater than his own personal story, his weakness was transformed into his ultimate strength. This man of “uncircumcised lips” becomes Moshe RabeinuÂ “ Moses Our Teacher. The key to his transformation is his faithfulness; his ability to trust in God’s process but also to remain in active dialogue with The Holy One of Being.
Midrash Tanhuma (a collection of midrash on the books of Torah dating from approximately the fifth century CE) states that when Moses spoke these words of TorahÂ “ eleh ha-d’varimÂ “ he relayed them in 70 languages for all the world to learn and understand. The Rabbis are suggesting that his tongue was so completely healed that his capacities for communication expanded to the whole of mankind. His personal healing allowed him to speak the language of universal truth- making Torah accessible to all. And herein lies another truth, that whenever a person engages in a process of personal healing, they unlock new capacities within themselves. Through their own personal healing and transformation, they have the potential to inspire and enlighten others.
As we face our challenges, may we recall that God resides even, or especially, in our wounded and weak placesÂ “ in our blocked tongues and in our inability to act. When we recognize the sacred potential within our own limitations, we can begin a process of healing and change. Resting within the wings of the Shekhinah, with an awareness of God in this process, we can find comfort and strength to open to new possibilities. Keeping faith with the unfolding of a process that may be bigger than our own personal story is certainly a challenge; but it is one whose ripples may reach a wider circle than we can even imagine.
Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman is the Founder and Executive Director of Rimon: Resource Center for Jewish Spirituality in Great Barrington, MA and is also a Co-Founder and Co-Leader of The Berkshire Minyan- a traditional/egalitarian minyan that meets every Shabbat morning in Great Barrington.