Dvar Torah given at Kehilat Hadar, July 29, 2017
Actions speak louder than words
Talk is cheap
אֱמֹר מְעַט וַעֲשֵׂה הַרְבֵּה
Say little and do much
וְכָל הַמַּרְבֶּה דְבָרִים, מֵבִיא חֵטְא:
And whoever increases words brings sin.
Our society has an interesting relationship with words.
We get words coming at us from many directions all the time, ads, articles, social media, podcasts.
There are so many words in our day to day lives that we have developed an ambiguous relationship with them. From the days when few could read and fewer could write, now, so many books are published that we don’t have room for them! For a while it looked like user generated content would equalize access and let anyone with an internet connection create a meme or start a revolution.
But have we reached the tipping point of too many words? We have news and fake news, facts and alternative facts. Now that anyone can publish an op ed, we have so many opinions that it is hard to keep up with public discourse.
In truth, since the presidential election, I’ve cut down on my intake of words. I keep aware of current events but I now see the value of curated content and having a filter between me and the onslaught.
It is in this context that I sat down to look at the book of D’varim.
D’varim is a book of words. D’varim literally means words. And all but the last 3 chapters are Moses’s farewell address to the people.
Jeffrey Tigay – author of the JPS commentary says of the book: “The most notable feature of Deuteronomy’s style is its exhortatory, didactic sermonic character… Deuteronomy has adopted a rhetorical style well suited to oral presentation. Its sentences are long and flowing. They are marked by assonance, key words, and stereotyped expressions… Themes are repeated frequently, a practice that enables listeners in a large audience to catch everything that is said…. (xvii)
As you can see, the focus of D’varim is words. Moses’s final words to the people, presented beautifully and at length.
Richard Elliot Friedman in his Commentary on the Torah notes that back in Exodus, at the burning bush (4:10) Moshe asserts that he is not a man of words. Now, he’s filled the whole book of D’varim with his words. Friedman estimates that it would take 3 hours to read them as a speech. Who would sit through a three hour speech anymore?
Yet, there is a strain in our tradition that says that words are all important. After all, it was with two words (ויהי אור) that God created the world.
Baruch Sheamar V’hayah olam. Just the simple act of saying words can call the world into being.
Many commentators, traditional and modern have used this as a jumping off point to remind us of the immense power of our words. And even if you don’t buy into the world building ideology of Genesis, Rabbi Elliot Dorff points out that with words we “surely create thoughts, feelings, desires and relationships- indeed, entire realms of human experience. Just as surely we can destroy worlds by what we say if we are not careful.”
It’s tempting to think that “actions speak louder than words” and “words create worlds” are two opposing ways of looking at things. Giving in to this temptation forces a choice. Which way will we look at the world? Do we value words above all else? Or do we discount them as meaningless? Or do we even have to decide which words are in which category? Is it even possible to do so given the volume of words in our lives today?!
But I’d like to suggest that there isn’t such a stark choice at all. That the value of the words we consume depends on their intention and context. We need to remember that our words don’t purely fall into one category or the other. Sometimes “talk is cheap” and there is never any serious intention of implementing proposed ideas.
And sometimes the words that are uttered as political posturing, though they are sometimes dismissed as “just talk” cause great harm to others along the way. Words can hurt or even ignore the reality of others, they can destroy lives. We should guard ourselves carefully from speaking words of this type, especially if we don’t intend them seriously. And we should recognize when others are deploying words in this way, and take immediate and decisive action to prevent further injury and protect the vulnerable.
And, on the other side of the coin, even the words of D’varim, the words of the Torah, as eloquent and beautiful as some of them can be, they have no significance if we just read them. These are words that we must take to heart. Torah is meaningless if it stays only in the realm of words. If we do not work to instantiate those values in our world.
My sincere hope for all of us is that we can learn to find a balance in our regard for words. That when we hear the words of others, and when we speak ourselves, we don’t fall into either trap of regarding words too highly or not taking them seriously enough. That we use our words and whatever means that we have at our disposal to build worlds and to sanctify life.