Moses' farewell speech to the Israelites shows how much of an impact words can make.
Words have the power to bring comfort and hope or anger and disappointment. We all know people who have found healing through honest, heartfelt communication with someone close to them. And unfortunately, others who have created painful divisions though angry, hurtful speech. At pivotal moments in our lives, words have the power to create — they can build relationships, offer solace and convey hope for the future.
The name of this week’s Torah portion and of the fifth and final book of the Torah is Devarim, “words” in English, and it comes from the very first line: “These are the words that Moses spoke to all of Israel.”
This is Moses’ final speech to his people before he dies and they cross into the Promised Land. He has led them for 40 years, from slavery to revelation, through times of holiness and grace, as well as moments of complaint and rebellion. Having reached the edge of the land of Israel, it is time for Moses to say goodbye.
At this moment of parting, Moses wants to remind the Israelites of where they’ve been, emphasize what they’ve learned and offer them a vision of who they can become. Like a father saying goodbye to his children, Moses offers them words to guide them when he is no longer there.
In Judaism, there is a rich tradition of ethical wills, writings from parents about the values they want to pass on to their children and the hopes they have for their futures. There is a lovely collection of modern wills from Israel, America and Europe called So That Your Values Live On, by Jack Riemer and Nathaniel Stampfer.
One example in the book is from Sadie Kulakofsky, a grandmother from Nebraska, who wrote: “Above the material things bequeathed … I hope I shall have given all of you something which is more precious … a love of our faith, a trust in God, from whom all blessings flow, a devotion to righteousness, to justice and to peace … These are the jewels, more precious than rubies which I hope will make your lives rich in all that is worthwhile for many years to come as I think they have made mine.”
While the words of the heart are carefully crafted in an ethical will, there are other times when the right words arise in the moment. When I was still a rabbinical student, I found myself at the bedside of an elderly woman who was dying. Her adult daughter was by her side and distraught that her mother was no longer conscious. Unsure what to do, I opened my prayer book and began to read the viddui, the traditional prayer known as the bedside confession.
After a few sentences, the daughter began to add her own words. She held her mother’s hand and told her that she loved her and that she was grateful for all that her mother had given her. Through her tears, she told her mother that she would be OK and that it was time for her to let go.
When she finally grew silent, I took her hand and together we chanted the Shema. As the daughter said goodbye to her mother, I witnessed the courage and strength born of love and the power of words to forge a connection between this life and the next.
As we read about Moses’ final words, may we choose our own words with wisdom so that we create worlds of love, understanding and connection.
Rabbi Elisa Goldberg is director of Jewish Community Services for Jewish Family and Children’s Service and co-president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.