The weapons of war are heartless, inexact and utterly destructive. Bombs, missiles, shells, bullets, grenades, knives, fists and feet bring pain, injury and loss. Those of us outside the physical theater of war find our hearts heavy with sadness, shock and anguish as we glean the news about and lament the violence and destruction of people and property. We are not soldiers in these battles and cannot feel or know the anxiety, shock and fear that accompanies being there. Nonetheless, It is from afar we feel and experience faint aftershocks of each act of violence.
However, there is another battlefield that is not limited to a military theater – bounded by geographic constraints and physical boundaries. It is the battlefield of identity, ideas and values. It is the battlefield of communities, nations, peoples. These battlefields cannot be constrained by geography, distance or any physical border. And while there are times when we encounter some of the weapons used in the military theater of battle, these are not the most prevalent weapons in this virtual theater. In this theater, in this battlefield words – and the ideas, feelings and meaning behind them – are the weapons used by the masses for destruction. We are quite impotent when it comes to directly affecting the use of weapons on the physical battlefield, such is not the case with the verbal weapons we witness, experience and utilize in this larger battlefield.
This week’s Torah portion begins the book of Deuteronomy or Devarim. The portion and the book begin: “Eleh Devarim – These are the words that Moses addressed to all of Israel … “. The entire book of Deuteronomy/Devarim (34 chapters) are Moses’ words of reminder, encouragement, chastisement and guidance to the Israelites. A simple, yet pithy teaching speaks of the power of these words used by Moses. It also speaks to us about the way that the power of words may be wielded for destruction or construction. A midrash teaches that the word: devarim (meaning ‘words’) can be vocalized in Hebrew to also read d’vorim (meaning: ‘bees’). It suggests that just as sharp, painful and even destructive that a bee’s sting may be – a bee’s honey may also be sweet, pleasing and nourishing. Moses’s words – the words of Torah – contain the nourishing nature of honey and the pain inducing nature of the stinger.
Even though we may be overwhelmed by the physical violence and destruction of the implements of war, we would be wise not to ignore or underestimate the power contained in the implements of our battlefield – the words we use. It will be the words of politicians, diplomats, soldiers AND the words of the individuals of those communities that will tear down or build up. After this fighting ends – and hopefully it will soon – it will be devarim – words that either continue the destruction wrought in this conflict or somehow, someway begin the work constructing a peace.
Let us keep these words, these devarim and the message behind them prominent in our minds and hearts as we process and respond to the events unfolding on the physical battlefield in this place so precious to the Jewish people and to the rest of the world.