A Man of Many Words

Dena Weiss

Parashat Devarim

Parashat Devarim opens with a verse that is so deceptively simple: 

דברים א:א
אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל...


Devarim 1:1
These are the words that Moshe spoke to all of Israel…


As Moshe approaches his death and the people approach the border of the land, he seizes the moment to instruct them. He reminds them of how far they’ve come and how far they still need to go. If any other leader gave this speech, it would be remarkable—for its scope and its depth, and for the fact that it is its own entire book, a fifth of the Pentateuch. But the fact that this speech comes from Moshe is incredible, literally, since, when we first meet Moshe, the one thing he is afraid to do is speak:

שמות ד:י
וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל ה' בִּי אֲדֹנָי לֹא אִישׁ דְּבָרִים אָנֹכִי גַּם מִתְּמוֹל גַּם מִשִּׁלְשֹׁם גַּם מֵאָז דַּבֶּרְךָ אֶל עַבְדֶּךָ כִּי כְבַד פֶּה וּכְבַד לָשׁוֹן אָנֹכִי: 


Shemot 4:10
Moshe said to God, “My Master, please. I am not a man of words. Neither yesterday nor the day before, nor now when You have spoken to Your servant for I am heavy of speech and heavy of tongue.”


What accounts for this incredible transformation, from a severe reluctance to speak even what God has commanded him to speak, to this inspirational outpouring of words that comes of Moshe’s own accord? What can we learn about strength and vulnerability from the way that Moshe himself changes and grows?

According to Rashi, Moshe’s initial reluctance to lead the people was not primarily about Moshe’s actual facility with words. Moshe simply did not think that he was right for the job:

רש"י שמות ד:י
גם מתמול וגו'. למדנו שכל שבעה ימים היה הקב"ה מפתה את משה בסנה לילך בשליחותו… והוא היה עומד ביום הז' כשאמר לו זאת. עוד שלח נא ביד תשלח, עד שחרה בו וקבל עליו. וכל זה, שלא היה רוצה ליטול גדולה על אהרן אחיו שהיה גדול הימנו, ונביא היה...1


Rashi to Shemot 4:10
Neither yesterday… We learned that for seven days the Holy Blessed One was trying to convince Moshe at the [burning] bush to go on His mission...2 And [Moshe] was standing on the seventh day when He said this to him. And further, send who You will send [was Moshe’s attitude] until [God] got angry at him and he accepted [the mission] upon himself. And all of this was because [Moshe] did not want to take a more prestigious position than his brother Aharon who was older than him and was a prophet...


According to Rashi, Moshe doesn’t decline the position of leadership because he is an unfit speaker, lo ish devarim. The causation goes in the opposite direction. Moshe points to his speech defect and claims that he is not a man of words because he feels that he is not the right person for a position that he feels rightly belongs to his brother. Moshe’s transition, from being someone who is afraid to speak at all to being someone who feels confident speaking at length to the entirety of the Jewish people, is a reflection of his growing into his identity as a leader. When he said that he was unable to or uninterested in speaking, this was a reflection of his insecurity. He didn’t feel ready, and therefore he said that he was unable.

When Rashi describes God’s attempts to convince Moshe to take on the leadership of the Jewish people that was his destiny, the language that he uses is מפתה (mefateh), which more literally means to entice or seduce. This verb is reminiscent of a different midrash in Shemot Rabbah which narrates the first encounter between God and Moshe at the burning bush:

שמות רבה ג:א
וַיֹּאמֶר אָנֹכִי אֱלֹהֵי אָבִיךָ (שמות ג:ו), הֲדָא הוּא דִכְתִיב (משלי יד, טו): פֶּתִי יַאֲמִין לְכָל דָבָר… אֵין פֶּתִי אֶלָּא לָשׁוֹן פִּתּוּי, כְּמָה דְתֵימָא: וְכִי יְפַתֶּה אִישׁ (שמות כב:טו). 
אָמַר רַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ הַכֹּהֵן בַּר נְחֶמְיָה בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁנִּגְלָה הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא עַל משֶׁה טִירוֹן הָיָה משֶׁה לַנְּבוּאָה, אָמַר הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אִם נִגְלָה אֲנִי עָלָיו בְּקוֹל גָּדוֹל אֲנִי מְבַעֲתוֹ, בְּקוֹל נָמוּךְ בּוֹסֵר הוּא עַל הַנְּבוּאָה, מֶה עָשָׂה נִגְלָה עָלָיו בְּקוֹלוֹ שֶׁל אָבִיו, אָמַר משֶׁה הִנֵּנִי, מָה אַבָּא מְבַקֵּשׁ, אָמַר הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אֵינִי אָבִיךָ אֶלָּא אֱלֹהֵי אָבִיךָ, בְּפִתּוּי בָּאתִי אֵלֶיךָ כְּדֵי שֶׁלֹא תִּתְיָרֵא...


Shemot Rabbah 3:1
He said I am the God of your father (Shemot 3:6). This is as it is written, A fool (peti) will believe anything (Mishlei 14:15)… Peti is the language of seduction (pituy) as it says, when a man seduces (yefateh, Shemot 22:15).
R. Yehoshua the Kohen b. Nehemiah said: When the Holy Blessed One revealed Himself to Moshe, he was a prophetic novice (tiron). The Holy Blessed One said: If I reveal Myself to him in a great voice I will frighten him, with a small voice I will sour him on prophecy. What did He do? He revealed Himself to him with the voice of his father. Moshe said: Here I am! What does father ask? The Holy Blessed One said:I am not your father, rather I am the God of your father. I came to you with seduction so that you would not be afraid... 


Whereas Rashi emphasized Moshe’s hesitation about speaking, this midrash reflects God’s hesitation about speaking and God’s need to modulate His own tone in order to ease Moshe into a prophetic relationship that Moshe was afraid of. Moshe in this midrash is a novice, and his unfamiliarity with God’s voice makes him insecure about using his own. Accordingly, it seems that Rashi’s explanation can be taken one step further. Not only is Moshe using his speech impediment as a way to cover for his insecurity, he might even be using his concern over Aharon’s prominence as an excuse. Moshe says no for no reason other than that he feels unprepared. He does not feel that he is enough, that he can do the job as he is.

According to R. Kalonymous Kalman Epstein,3 author of the Ma’or VaShemesh, there was a distinct turning point in Moshe’s leadership when he abandoned one form of leadership style for another. The introduction of eileh hadevarim, these are the words, highlights Moshe’s new approach.

מאור ושמש פרשת דברים 
אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן בַּמִּדְבָּר בָּעֲרָבָה מוֹל סוּף בֵּין פָּארָן וּבֵין תֹּפֶל וְלָבָן וַחֲצֵרֹת וְדִי זָהָב. פירש רש"י ז"ל: אלה הדברים - לפי שהן דברי תוכחות ומנה כאן כל המקומות שהכעיסו לפני המקום ברוך הוא, לפיכך סתם את הדברים והזכירן ברמז מפני כבודן של ישראל...
מצינו כמה פעמים שהוכיח משה את ישראל ונטל את שלו מתחת ידן, וכמו שִׁמְעוּ נָא הַמֹּרִים (במדבר כ:י) - נגזר עליו לָכֵן לֹא תָבִיאוּ אֶת הָעָם וגו' (במדבר כ:יב)... ועל זה נענש מפני שהוכיחן בגלוי, והבין שטעה במה שהוכיחן בגלוי, ולקח לעצמו דרך אחר היינו שיוכיחן ברמז...


Ma’or VaShemesh Parashat Devarim
These are the words that Moshe spoke to all of Israel on the banks of the Jordan, in the desert, on the plain opposite Suph between Paran and Tophel, Lavan, Chatzerot, and Di Zahav.
Rashi explained: These are the words. Because these are words of rebuke. And [Moshe] enumerated here all of the places where they angered the Blessed Omnipresent. Therefore he truncated his words and mentioned them through a hint out of the honor of Israel…
We have found a few times where Moshe rebuked Israel and took what was his from under their hands (i.e. was punished on their account). Like, Listen Oh Rebellious ones! (BeMidbar 20:10) because of this it was decreed against him, therefore you won’t bring the people (BeMidbar 20:12)… And [Moshe] was punished because he openly rebuked them and he understood that he sinned in his rebuking them openly, and he accepted a different path for himself—that is, that he should rebuke them through hints...


The Rashi that the Ma’or VaShemesh quotes focuses not on the quantity of words that Moshe utters, but their quality. These words are “Words,” they are a “talking to.” Rabbinic literature distinguishes between the softer amirah, saying, and the more emphatic dibbur, speaking.4 When Moshe’s speech is prefaced as “devarim”, it is the equivalent of saying, “I need to speak with you about something”—which everyone knows is code for and a prelude to stating something harsh or difficult. The Ma’or VaShemesh notices, however, that these words are not as harsh as they could have been and were actually much more gentle than the way that Moshe had castigated the people beforehand. “These words” are a departure from Moshe’s earlier style. This time, Moshe decides to be delicate and indirect. Moshe lists the places where the people have sinned instead of enumerating the sins themselves. Moshe allows the people to come to their own conclusions about their behavior rather than calling them rebellious.

These words come from a place of mature leadership. These words come from a place of confidence and are intended for people who can be trusted to hear rebuke and learn from it. The incident that the Ma’or VaShemesh points to as the turning point in Moshe’s leadership style takes place in Sefer BeMidbar. The people are thirsty and they turn to Moshe and Aharon for water. God tells Moshe to take his staff, gather the people, and speak to the rock in their sight. Moshe and Aharon indeed gather the people, but before they extract water from the rock, Moshe yells at the people for their rebelliousness. Moshe does not follow God’s instructions precisely and God tells Moshe and Aharon that they have acted in bad faith and are now disqualified from being the leaders of Benei Yisrael—they will not be going into the land of Israel at all and will die on the way, in the desert.5

The Ma’or VaShemesh’s reading of the sin that provoked such a dramatic punishment is critically important and is a major departure from the style of most biblical commentators. According to him, Moshe’s sin had nothing to do with hitting the rock. Moshe’s sin was the speech that he made before hitting the rock, when he called Benei Yisrael rebellious. This was Moshe’s losing his temper, yelling at the people in a way that God found unacceptable. This display of hostility towards the people that was the reason that he could no longer be their leader. Moshe, in his greatness, understood this. And when it was time for him to take his leave of the people, he did it as a new kind of leader, one who spoke to the people with subtlety and respect.

However, according to the midrash Pesikta deRav Kahana, it was not just the harshness of this statement that made Moshe lose his stature and prevented him from entering the promised land, it was specifically the fact that he called Benei Yisrael rebellious people:

פסיקתא דרב כהנא (מנדלבוים) פיסקא יד, שמעו
מה היה משה דומה, למלך שמסר את בנו לפידגוגו א' לו אל תהי קורא לבני מורה...פעם אחת היקניטו וקרא אתו מורה. אמ' לו המלך- כל עצמי הייתי מצוה אותך ואו' לך אל תהי קורא לבני מורה ואת קורא לבני מורה, לית עסקיה דערים מהלך עם שטי. כך כת' וידבר י"י אל משה ואל אהרן ויצום אל בני ישראל (שמות ו:יג), מה צום, אמר להם אל תהו קוראין לבני מורים, וכיון שהיקניטו על מי מריבה אמר להם משה שמעו נא המורים (במדבר כ:י), א' להם הקב"ה כל עצמי הייתי מצוה אתכם ואומ' לכם אל תהו קורין לבני מורים ואתם קורין לבניי מורים, לית עסקיה דערים מהלך עם שטי...לכן לא תביאו (במדבר כ:יב)...


Pesikta DeRav Kahana 14
To what was Moshe similar? To a king who gave his son over to a tutor (paidagog). [The king] said to him, “Do not call my son rebellious.” Once [the son] antagonized him and [the tutor] called him rebellious. The king said to [the tutor], “I fully commanded you and told you not to call my son rebellious and you called my son rebellious?! It is not the way for the wise to walk with a fool.” Similarly it is written, God spoke to Moshe and Aharon and He commanded them concerning Benei Yisrael (Shemot 6:13). What did He command them? He said to them, “Do not call My children rebellious.” And when they antagonized [Moshe] at the waters of Merivah, Moshe said to them, “Listen you rebellious ones!” (BeMidbar 20:10). The Holy Blessed One said to them, “I fully commanded you and told you not to call my children rebellious and you called my children rebellious?! It is not the way for the wise to walk with a fool. Therefore you will not bring…” (BeMidbar 20:12).


According to this midrash, Moshe displayed unfitness to be their leader when he called the people rebellious.6 The midrash does not state explicitly why this was so important to God, but the parable at the beginning of the passage indicates that the key to understanding this is that Moshe’s role is like a tutor’s, a pedagogue. The problem with calling Benei Yisrael rebellious is analogous to when a teacher refers to their student as rebellious, disrespectful, or disobedient.

The accusation of rebelliousness is so deeply problematic because it is a teacher-focused complaint. It is not about the student’s abilities or attitude vis a vis the material, it’s about how the student shows insufficient respect to the teacher. And just as it is only the poor worker who blames his tools, it is only an inexperienced teacher who blames their students. Only an insecure teacher demands rather than commands respect. When Moshe accuses Benei Yisrael, his students, of having an improper attitude towards him it shows his insecurity, it is a display of his own panic and frustration.7 To extend the analogy, Moshe is a teacher who has lost control of his classroom and instead of saying, “I need to work on my classroom management skills,” he says, “these students are incapable of behaving.”

Yet, a teacher who has mastery and confidence and who is ready to learn themselves can acknowledge when they need help. This growth on Moshe’s part is demonstrated by the continuation of his speech in the beginning of Devarim:

דברים א:ט, יג
וָאֹמַר אֲלֵכֶם בָּעֵת הַהִוא לֵאמֹר לֹא אוּכַל לְבַדִּי שְׂאֵת אֶתְכֶם:... הָבוּ לָכֶם אֲנָשִׁים חֲכָמִים וּנְבֹנִים וִידֻעִים לְשִׁבְטֵיכֶם וַאֲשִׂימֵם בְּרָאשֵׁיכֶם: 


Devarim 1:9, 13
And I spoke to you at that time, saying, “I can’t carry you alone… Bring for yourselves men who are wise, insightful, and well known to your tribes and I will appoint them above you.”


In Moshe’s re-narration of the story of his setting up a legal system, Yitro is absent.8 In his telling, Moshe takes full responsibility for the issues that Yitro noticed. He is acknowledging with his own words that Yitro was right: he was unable to carry the people alone.

We can gain so much insight from this transformation in Moshe Rabbeinu’s leadership. First, it teaches us that none of us start out as experts. Moshe was a novice when God chose him and he continued to make serious mistakes throughout his career. This is not because Moshe was a failure as our leader, it’s because Moshe was human. And even though Moshe didn’t feel and in fact perhaps wasn’t ready, God chose him and invested in him. Second, it shows how hard it is for all of us, especially when we are in positions of authority, power, or responsibility to admit that we’re scared, that we need help. Instead we tend to cover up this feeling by saying, “Someone else should do it,” as Moshe did when he demurred from leadership. And God saw through this and said, “Actually, you can do it, you just need Aharon’s help and the benefit of his skills and experience.” Finally, it teaches us how easily and quickly we blame other people when we don’t feel competent and we don’t feel that we are in complete control. We criticize other people in order to mask our own insecurities, the fear that someone else—or even we ourselves—might notice that we don’t quite know what to do.

Moshe became an ish devarim, a powerful and confident leader, only after he acknowledged his failures, only after he accepted his weaknesses. When Moshe was scared that he would be exposed as incompetent, he was harsh. His display of anger was poorly designed to cover for his insecurity.

We need to lean into our weaknesses, we need to be able to say we need help. When we do, we will uncover not only our own strengths, but a place of softness and support for other people.

1 See Midrash Tanhuma Shemot 27.

2 The proof for this is, “מתמול שלשום מאז דברך - הרי שלשה, ושלשה גמין רבויין הם, הרי ששה, Neither yesterday nor the day before, nor now that is three and the three times it says also, gam.” It is a standard Rabbinic exegesis to read “also” as embedding extra information, in this case, multiplying each instance by two. Each day is an “also” day, that is, two days.

3 1751-1823, Poland.

4 This is also emphasized by the respective binyanim: אמר is always conjugated in the simple kal case and דבר is always conjugated in the strong pi’el case.

5 BeMidbar 20:7-13.

6 It is worthy to note that Moshe calls Benei Yisrael “rebellious” twice more in Sefer Devarim, but only as a description of their behavior not as inherently “rebellious ones.” See Devarim 9:7 and 9:24. 

7 Moshe’s insecurity is also belied by the call of shim’u na, listen now which shows that he feels that no one is listening to him.

8 The earlier version of these events, with Yitro’s involvement, is narrated in Shemot 18.