This week’s Torah portion, the opening of the book of Deuteronomy, begins with the words ayleh d’varim, “these are the words that Moses spoke to all of Israel on this side of the Jordan in the wilderness…”
Hebrew is a multi-layered language, and one word can have several meanings. The word d’varim can mean words, but it also can mean things.
All week I’ve been thinking about the relationship between words and things, between that which is intangible and that which is concrete. Because generally speaking, words are ephemeral, slippery. Things are solid, physical. You can touch a thing but not a word.
This does not mean that words do not have impact, including physical consequences. That’s a given. But today I want to go a little deeper into the relationship between words and, for lack of a better word, reality.
Because another key element of the book of Deuteronomy is that it is told by Moses. This is completely unlike the first four books of the Torah, which have an anonymous narrator.
Here, in the last book of the Torah, Moses tells his story in his own voice. And it is his reality, his own truth about what happened. We encountered some of these stories earlier in the Torah, but they were told differently. This is most notable in the episode with the scouts sent to check out Canaan. (You can find the first version in Numbers, chapters 13 and 14, and Moses’ in Deuteronomy, chapter 1.)
For the first time, we hear Moses’ perspective on the Exodus and the people’s journey through the desert. Sometimes, it is quite different from the previous version. It begs the question: Which is true? And the answer – both.
It is entirely possible for two people (or groups of people) to hold two different narratives of the same story. We see that today in Jerusalem, where Jews and Muslims have very different narratives about the Temple Mount. In fact, they even have different names for it – in the Muslim world it is called the Al Aksa Mosque.
The words are different. Yet it is one thing, the same place, something tangible that everyone can touch and agree exists. Its physical reality is one thing; its existential reality is another… or rather, others, because in the world of words it has multiple realities.
Reconciling different realities is difficult, if not impossible. Perhaps the first step is to accept that both are legitimate, both are real, and indeed, both are true. It’s a beginning.