Posts Tagged ‘blessings’

Strong Words

Saturday, July 18th, 2009

This week’s portion, Devarim, begins with an odd construction: “Eileh ha-devarim asher diber Moshe…” meaning generally, “These are the words (things) that Moses spoke…” What makes this unusual is that the verb would normally “amar.” The Rabbis inferred from this that, since the root DBR (word) is doubled, it means “strong words.” What kinds of words are “strong?” Words of rebuke, they reasoned, thereby creating a puzzle to be solved (or perhaps solving another, earlier puzzle): Why would Moses begin his discourse by rebuking all Israel?

After all, here we are, about to hear his last words before he is taken from us and we must go it without our faithful leader, and he starts by rebuking us? How does this motivate us? There are many deeper lessons here; let’s start with what the Midrash tells us.

Midrash Rabbah Devarim I:4 notes this problem, and further notes that Balaam had blessed Israel (the earlier puzzle), and then wonders: aren’t things reversed? Shouldn’t Moses bless Israel, and Balaam curse us?

No, the rhetorical answer comes: if it were that way, then who (amongst the other peoples) would believe the blessings, since they come from a friend? And who (amongst the Israelites) would take the rebukes seriously, since they come from an enemy? Instead, people will more likely listen to what seems to come from a source without bias or a hidden agenda.

And so we have illuminated for us the conundrum of belief: we believe what we want to hear, but we are more likely to receive the unexpected as true. It is the unexpected that shakes us out of complacency, the strange that gets our attention; we notice what is different, not what is the same. Once noticed, we work diligently to make the “different” the “same,” to make the strange unremarkable. It is the fundamental process of learning: noticing the unexpected, and making it predictable.

So Moses could have told us what we wanted to hear: “It’s going to be fine, everything will be all right, don’t worry, it’s the land of milk and honey – what could go wrong?” Instead he delivered the message we needed, as only he could: “Shape up! I know you all, and how easily you stray! Don’t get complacent – stay alert!” Strong words, indeed – strong words to impart strength.

May we all be blessed with friends who will tell us what we need to hear, and strangers who bless us. And may we bless the strangers among us, and speak frankly to our friends…