Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22)

“Life and death are in the power of the tongue,” declared our ancestors in Proverbs 18:21.  Furthermore they went on to say, “In the multitude of words, there is no lack of sin.” Proverbs 19:10 because they realized how easy it is to talk our way into trouble. In fact, we live in two civilizations simultaneously, both of which are built on words.  Jewish civilization begins with a “brit,” a “covenant” between Abraham and God that we will have a special relationship and follow God’s moral and ethical laws.  American civilization begins with, “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union….” And goes on to declare, “We hold these truths to be self-evident….”

Words matter.  We build our lives and our communities on a foundation of words and promises.  We stand in court and swear to tell the truth, we sign our names on documents filled with words and commit to pay a mortgage every month for the next 30 years, we make a commitment by our words to support every social cause imaginable and whether it is the Ocean Park Community Center, Chrysalis, or Kehillat Israel’s Endowment Fund, every non-profit institution in the world takes our words seriously and stakes its entire future on the faith that our words of support mean what they say.

So now after twenty months of intense negotiations and the leadership of the United States along with England, France, Germany, Russia, and China, the whole world is holding its breath, waiting to see if the words of that complicated agreement between those six nations and Iran will bring greater security to the world or greater peril.  It is yet another reminder that words really matter.  “Life and death are in the power of the tongue,” for sure. 

The name of this week’s portion “Devarim,” means “words,” but in Hebrew “devarim” carries the sense of something solid, palpable and real. In fact “devarim” is also a word that means “things” in Hebrew so perhaps the opening passage in the Book of Deuteronomy might be read as, “These are the things that Moses shared with all of Israel…” (rather than “these are the words.”)  For what follows in the Torah is Moses explaining to the Israelites that the burden of carrying all of their challenges, struggles, expectations and dreams as a people was too much for any one person, even Moses to bear alone.  Therefore Moses said he chose wise and understanding men to help him wrestle with the difficult decisions that needed to be made for the welfare of the community and charged them to judge with righteousness the multitude of challenges that would face the nation.

We have followed Moses’s lead ever since and elected leaders to help us wrestle with the difficult challenges of nationhood that we face as well.  Here we are thousands of years later facing one of the most difficult and fearful challenges in our history – the potential of a nuclear armed Iran, a growing army of Islamic fundamentalists who demonstrate almost unprecedented brutality and inhumanity and who publicly declare their intent to destroy both America and Israel.  Here we are faced with words in an agreement that some say will result in a safer world and other in a world filled with more danger than ever.  It depends on whose words you trust, which leaders you follow, which path seems to hold out the most promise for a world where hatred and violence are curtailed and not encouraged.

Those who know me know that I have been a life long “liberal” in just about every way.  I voted for Clinton twice, Obama twice and if given the chance will vote for a Clinton once again, so my politics are pretty unambiguous.  So when President Obama laid out this agreement and said it’s primary goal is to stop Iran from getting a nuclear bomb and that this agreement will block every path to a nuclear bomb I believe him.  But I certainly don’t trust Iran in any way and assume if there is a way to cheat they will find it and do it.  Perhaps that’s why a famous Persian proverb says, “Trust in God but tie your camel tight.”

I also don’t consider myself in any way an expert in the political nuances of the Middle East or in the twists and turns of this complicated agreement.  So I turned to someone I know who is both – my friend Marc Ginsberg, former US Ambassador to Morocco (first Jewish ambassador to a Muslim country), who speaks fluent Arabic, Hebrew, French, English and who knows what else, is an annual speaker for AIPAC and is one of the smartest human beings I have ever known.

I shared my ambivalence with Marc and asked what he thought, and he wrote back that he has studied the deal, is writing an Op Ed on it and shares my ambivalence.  He shared his concerns about the mullahs, his concern that Obama’s team will do everything possible to avoid acknowledging that they may have stepped over a red line in the future because they are so invested in having made the deal in the first place, but then added the words that mattered most: “There is no viable alternative.”

So these are the “devarim,” the words, and the things that weigh heavily on us all this week.  Life and death is in the power of the tongue, in the power of the deal, and in the decision that each of us must make as to whose “word” we trust the most and whose leadership we are willing to follow.

“Eleh Ha-Devarim….These are the words…”

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