B’ever ha’Yarden b’eretz Moav ho’il Moshe be’er et hatorah hazot
On the far side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses undertook to explain this Torah (Deuteronomy 1:5)
The English name of the fifth and final book of the Five Books of Moses is “Deuteronomy”. Deuteronomy is a Greek term that means “repetition of the law”. This is an appropriate name, as the entire book – save the very end that describes Moses’ passing – is a recounting by Moses of the previous books of the Torah. The book is in the form of a very long final oration by Moses, in which he recaps the journey of the Children of Israel under his leadership, and repeats and expands upon the mitzvot – the laws by which the Jewish People will live.
The Hebrew name of the book, D’varim, is also an appropriate title, and a more evocative one as well. D’varim means “words”. The book of D’varim is filled with Moses’ words. This is the same Moses who, when called decades earlier by YHVH at the burning bush, could only respond, “Bi, Adonai, lo ish devarim anochi” – “Please, my Lord, I am not a man of words – not now, not ever – I am heavy of speech and heavy of tongue.” (Exodus 4:10)
I am not the first to notice that Moses, who originally insists that he is not a man of words, is able at the end of his life to deliver a 33-chapter summation and explication of his life’s mission. What a transformation! How did Moses “find his voice”?
The Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger (1847-1905), points us to the double meaning of the word be’er in the verse I cited above: “ho’il Moshe be’er et hatorah hazot.” The plain meaning of this verse is, “Moses undertook to explain this Torah.” The verb Be’er means “explain, expound, elucidate.” But the noun Be’er means “a well”. Thus a creative alternate meaning dances in the background: “Moses undertook to well up this Torah.”
Listen: “On the far side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, this Torah welled up in Moses.”
Where does inspiration dwell? Is it on some distant mountaintop, or is it deep within each of us? Perhaps Moses earlier in life did not yet know how to let words well up within his soul. The Sefat Emet continues the analogy, and compares those who mistakenly think of themselves as a cistern (bor בור in Hebrew) to those who correctly understand themselves to be a well (be’er באר). A cistern is a closed system; once its contents have been emptied, it is dry. A well is an open system; it taps into a rechargeable, invisible, ever-flowing water source, and siphons it to the surface. A good well brims over with water, and never runs dry. Therefore, if a person thinks of herself as a cistern, she mistakenly thinks that inspiration is a product of her own self. The wellsprings of creativity will not replenish this person. But one who sees oneself as a well comes to understand that he is not the source but rather a conduit for inspiration.
Playing further with the Hebrew, one can say that the difference between a bor בור and a be’er באר is the vivifying aleph א, the Voice of God, the soundless letter from which the remainder of the alphabet, and thus human communication, emerges. Without our connection to the deep, flowing silence of the aleph, our inspiration will run dry.
Prior to encountering the presence of YHVH, Life Unfolding, at the burning bush, Moses labored under the illusion that hampers so many of us in our search for a life of purpose – he thought that he was a closed system, limited to his own resources and resourcefulness. At the burning bush, Moses’ illusory aloneness was shattered, and he became a messenger, a channel, a vessel for a greater calling. He would find his voice by, paradoxically, allowing inspiration to flow through him. We find this understanding in YHVH’s response to Moses at the burning bush. When Moses stammers, “I am slow of speech and slow of tongue!” YHVH replies: “Who gives humans speech?…Now go, and I will be with you, in your mouth, and will teach you what to say.” (Exodus 4:11)
Perhaps over the course of the next forty years Moses learns how to allow God to speak through him, as it were. Is this what it means to be a prophet? Perhaps. I think it is what it means to be an artist, as well. And a lover. When we learn how to dig down in ourselves beyond our egos to the wellsprings of inspiration that flow for all creatures, when we tend our well so that we can water others from our particular channel to the Divine, we are liberated from the illusion of our separateness while simultaneously fulfilling our own unique role in the universe.
By the time Moses speaks Sefer D’varim, the Book of Words, Moses has mastered the subtle skill of allowing words to well up in him. He becomes the well. The teachings flow out from his lips, and he is no longer at a loss for words. Indeed, as his oration reaches its climax at the end of Deuteronomy, Moses does his utmost to imbue the Children of Israel with the understanding that they too are wells and not cisterns, and will be able to continue to connect with the Divine after Moses is gone:
[This teaching] is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may do it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us, and impart it to us, that we may do it?” No, the word is in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it. (Deut. 30:11-14)
Across a lifetime of struggle and service, Moses came to trust and to allow inspiration to flow through him. He thus found his voice, and his words still resound in the world to this day. He also left us with a charge, as all great teachers will do: Do not think that creative and moral inspiration is some limited resource, secreted in some external, inaccessible source. No, that source flows all around you and within you, waiting to be tapped, ready to well up in your being and flow out into the world.