“These are the words…”

The book of Deuteronomy begins with the phrase ayleh d’varim,these are the words that Moses spoke to all of Israel…”

Hebrew is a multi-layered language, and one word can have several meanings. D’varim can be translated as words, but it also means things.

I’ve been thinking about the relationship between words and things, between that which is intangible and that which is concrete. Because words are ephemeral, slippery. Things are physical, solid. You can touch a thing but not a word.

But words matter. The words we say, the phrases, sentences, conversations we hold, all have weight. They are as real as the things we can touch, and sometimes they can slip out of our mouths, seemingly all on their own, and meanings get twisted, tangled.

As someone who regularly speaks in front of groups of people, I know that I will misspeak, despite my best efforts. And even when I say exactly what I mean, some people will disagree with me. They will tell me I am wrong, sometimes angrily, sometimes nicely, sometimes with pity in their voices, as if to say, “oh dear, Rabbi Jennifer, you are so naïve, so misguided, and you are just plain wrong.”

But here’s the thing about truth conveyed through words. My truth is different than yours because my lived experience is different than yours. Sitting together we can look out a window and we will both see the same trees, birds, sky. And yet when we try to tell someone else what we see, our descriptions will be different, because we are different. We see the exact same thing and yet we see it from our own unique perspectives. Both are correct, both are true.

When we open the book of Deuteronomy, the book that in Hebrew is called D’varim, we see the world through Moses’ eyes. The book is his farewell speech, and at last we hear Moses telling his story in his own voice. And because it is his truth, we should not be surprised that his versions of things that happened during 40 years in the desert are different than the ones we read earlier in the Bible.

So too with each of us. When we listen to each other’s stories, may we remember to listen with open hearts as well as open ears. The stories may change with the telling; one spouse will tell it differently than the other; I may tell my own story differently today than yesterday. The words of the Torah will speak to us one way this year, another way next year.

For me, there is one recipient of my words Who does not judge me if I slip up, misspeak, or stumble, and so today I will close with this prayer to the One, from the morning prayer service: “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, my God, my rock and my redeemer.”