This morning marks the beginning of the 5th and final book of the Torah, ספר דברים – The book of Devarim. The Book of Devarim is often translated as the book of speeches. After all, the entire book consists of a series of very long sermons that Moshe gave to the Jewish people right before they entered the Land of Israel.
Now there is something ironic and a bit surprising about the fact that Moshe is all of the sudden giving these long sermons. Those of you who have been following the story of Moshe and know anything about his natural abilities might know what I am referring to.
Way back at the Burning Bush when Moshe originally was interviewing for the job, he said לא איש דברים אנכי which means, “I am not a man of words” and we know that this was Moshe’s major impediment. But yet now at the end of his life he is giving one long sermon after another!
The Midrash Tanchuma lays out this question in a somewhat humorous way and puts the question in the mouths of the Jews who had to listen to these speeches.
במדרש תנחומא אלה הדברים וגו'
אמרו ישראל למשה אתמול אמרת לא איש דברים אנכי ועכשיו אתה מדבר כ"כ
This is a loose translation of the midrash: The Jews say to Moshe, when you interviewed to be our rabbi, you promised you would never speak and that is why we hired you. But now all of the sudden you are giving sermon after sermon and each one is way too long!
I would like to answer this contradiction (whether Moshe is a man of no words or a man of very many words) with a very powerful thought of the Chasidic Master, Reb Nochum of Chernobyl. Since Reb Nochum is probably someone who many of you have never heard of and are not familiar with his thought, I would like to introduce his idea by first giving over some of his biography and his story which I believe will give added insight into his idea.
I am sure that many of you heard of the Twersky family. The Twersky Chasidic dynasty began in the Ukraine with Reb Nochum of Chernobyl. Reb Nochum (1730 – 1787) studied under the Baal Shem Tov (the founder of chassidut) And then under the Maggid of Mezeritch. He was one of the first to propagate Ḥasidism;
Now there are actually two kinds of rebbes or Chassidic leaders. One kind of leader is the classic rebbe. The Rebbe has a court and is based in one town. He has a small tight nit group of followers and then a larger group of Chassidim who live in other towns and come to visit him on the holidays. But the other kind of Rebbe is called a Maggid, or a preacher. A maggid would travel from city to city and town to town and try to offer words of inspiration and chassidut to the masses. Reb Nochum was a Maggid. Being a maggid isn’t an easy job. You are away from home, it is very tiring; but it is a labor of love because it is the only way of bringing Judaism and Chassidut to the people. And Reb Nochum was really one of the first Maggidim in Hassidut.
Now back to Moshe. Was he a man of words or not? In order to answer the question, Reb Nochum first has to explain some key kabbilistic ideas. Reb Nochum tells us that there are essentially two kinds of people in terms of their spiritual orientation. There are some people who are what is called מוחין דקטנים which comes from the Hebrew phrase מוח קטן which I will call small brained. And then there are people who he says have מוחין דגדולין which means big brained people. What is the difference between these two groups? It comes down to whether or not you have what is called דעת or knowledge. The small brained people don’t have it and the big brained people have it.
So then the next question is, what is this דעת that separates the big brains from the small brains. Well Reb Nochum defines people who have דעת, and this is very important, as those who understand that it is possible that when they speak, God is speaking through them.
How does God speak through people? Well according to Hassidic and Kabbilistic teaching, the shchinah is trapped in all of us. We are all God at our core. But we have layers of Ego and impurity that traps the shechinah inside of us. But as soon as we can pull away all of those layers, The shechinah starts talking through our mouth (השכינה מדברת מתוך גרונו).
This is what divides the small brain people from the big brain people. The small brain people worship God out of יראה or fear. They pray to God to avert punishment and they ask God to take care of their needs; health, parnasah, all important things but from Reb Nochum’s perspective, not ideal.
The Big Brain People on the other hand worship God so that they can strip away those layers and so they can experience the ecstasy of being egoless, having God speak through you and in a certain sense becoming G-d.
This is how we can understand how Moshe went from someone who couldn’t put together a sentence to being someone who delivered the most important speeches in history. He started off as being one who couldn’t speak and at the end of his life he was still someone who couldn’t speak. So who was speaking those important speeches on the Plains of Moav just before he died? Over Moshe’s 40 year career his brain got bigger and bigger. He now truly divested himself of his ego and everytime he opened his mouth, he mouth was moving but it was God who was talking. To some extent Moshe became God.
Now I would like to get back to Reb Nochum’s personal story. He was a Maggid. I mentioned being a maggid is difficult. You have to leave home and never really settle down. But now I think I understand Reb Nochum and what motivated him. He truly believed that wherever he was teaching, he was allowing God to speak through him. He must have craved the spiritual pleasure of transcending himself and becoming God.
On this Shabbat of דברים of speeches, I ask us all to remember that the shechinah resides in all of us. And even if we cannot perfect ourselves like Moshe or even like Reb Nochum, we can at our own level transcend our egos, go beyond ourselves and allow God to speak through us. And yes, if we do that, we can in some way become G-d!