(Devar Torah on Parashat Devarim given August 12, 2016)
This week we begin our annual traversal through Sefer Devarim/ the Book of Deuteronomy. The so-called “English” title of the book, “Deuteronomy” comes from the Greek and means “Second Law.” In Jewish tradition as well, one of the traditional nicknames for the book is “Mishneh Torah” which can be translated as “Second Law” or, alternatively, as “Repetition of the Law.”
As for the Hebrew title, “Devarim” (דברים), like all other books of the Torah, the Hebrew name comes from the first unique word in the text. Since the opening words are – “Eyleh ha-devarim asher diber Moshe el kawl yisrael”/ “These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel”/ אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-כָּל-יִשְׂרָאֵל, the book came to be known as “Sefer Devarim”/ “The Book of Words”.
But there’s another level to the Hebrew here.
In Hebrew, the word “devarim” means not just “words” but also “things” or “matters”. “Devarim” are substantive. “Devarim” are weighty. “Devarim” are significant.
Spoken words can give rise to hurt or embarrassment, and this is no light matter. The Talmud teaches: “If anyone makes his friend’s face turn white [from embarrassment] in public, it is as if he spilled blood.“ (Bava Metzia 58b).
I often advise people that sarcasm goes over my head. To a certain extent, I really am just dense about sarcasm. But to a certain extent I also cultivate this density in myself. “Devarim” are “words” but they are not “just” words. “Devarim” are substantive “things” that matter, and, in my own life, I try not to opt in to conversation that is laced with sarcasm.
Over recent days and weeks and months, our country has been subjected to the devarim of a particular politician that are full of Islamophobia, incitement to violence, demagoguery and insult. And in a number of these incidents, this politician has later been compelled to backtrack from such talk, claiming that the words in question were meant jokingly or sarcastically.
Our Jewish tradition doesn’t condemn joking. Indeed, just the opposite. A story in the Talmud (Ta’anit 22a) recounts Elijah the Prophet visiting a marketplace and speaking with a certain Rabbi Beroka, when Elijah sees two men passing by. Elijah remarks:
“These two have a share in the world to come! Rabbi Beroka then approached and asked them, What is your occupation? They replied, ‘We are jesters, when we see people depressed we cheer them up; furthermore when we see two people quarreling we strive hard to make peace between them.’”
But it’s no joke to encourage violence against one’s political opponents. And it’s no joke to accuse an elected leader of having been the “founder” of a terrorist organization. And it doesn’t solve the problem to later on just dismiss such words as sarcasm or joking.
Such political discourse is unworthy of our democracy.
Debate and disputation is good. And we hope and pray that our national politics might be elevated to the level of “makhlekot leshem shamayim” (“arguments for the sake of Heaven”).
Or, to put it in more secular terminology: Let’s debate over the issues, using words as tools for communication and not as weapons for denigration or incitement.
It may seem a lot to ask to try to elevate our discourse in a world in which insults and hate speech are all too common.
But, as with so many aspirations in life, half the battle is first to envision the world we want to create.
In this respect, I was moved by a commentary I came across this week concerning this week’s Torah portion.
The opening verse of the Book of Deuteronomy, after starting out with the statement: – – “Eyleh ha-devarim asher diber Moshe el kawl yisrael”/ “These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel”/ אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-כָּל-יִשְׂרָאֵל --- continues with the words: “be’ever hayarden” (בעבר הירדן), which means “on the other side of the Jordan.”
So we have: “These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan…”
But which side of the Jordan River is “the other side” – “be’ever ha-yarden?”
We’ve already learned, from the end of the Book of Numbers , that the Israelites at this point are encamped “b’arvot Moav”/ “on the steppes of Moab.” (Num. 36:13). And at Deuteronomy 1:5, it’s explicitly reiterated that Moses is speaking “be’ever hayarden b’eretz moav”/ “on the other side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab.”
Chaim Potok’s commentary on the phrase “on the other side of the Jordan” in the Etz Hayyim chumash points out that “Although Moses never crossed over to the western side of the Jordan, this is written from the point of view of one already in the Land [of Israel].”
The late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Shneerson waxes more poetically on this. He teaches that this phrase “be'ever hayarden” / “on the other side of the Jordan” means that they already saw themselves as being in the promised land. Their current physical location, the land of Moav could be thought of as being “on the other side” – which is to say that, in a spiritual or psychological sense, they were already in the land of Israel – and their present physical location in Moav was thus “on the other side of the Jordan.”
Or, to put it in Rabbi Shneerson’s words: “The message for us is that […] we should already be so focused on our final destination that it is as if we were already living in it. […] The first prerequisite of redemption is the awareness that we belong in the redemptive state, and that the present preceding state of exile is precisely that, exile, not home.” 
Let those who aspire to leadership, and all of us as well, imagine ourselves to be in a world of constructive dialogue, brotherhood and sisterhood, justice and compassion --- and we will be well on our way to making it a reality.
 See Pirke Avot 5:17 (“Any dispute that is for the sake of Heaven is destined to endure; one that is not for the sake of Heaven is not destined to endure [i.e., to be productive]. Which is a dispute that is for the sake of Heaven? The dispute(s) between Hillel and Shamai. Which is a dispute that is not for the sake of Heaven? The dispute of Korach and all his company.”)