“And these are the words that Moshe spoke to all Israel beyond the Jordan in the wilderness, the Arabah, over against Suf, between Paran and Tophel, and Lavan, and Chatzeros and Di-zahav.”
How Moshe Rabbeinu has changed since our first encounter with him in Chumash Shemos. The same man who declared that he was not an Ish Devarim, a man of words, now speaks Ha-devarim (the words) that will occupy and inspire us for the next several weeks. What caused this dramatic transformation? How did this self-described speaker with a “heavy mouth and heavy tongue” achieve the eloquence on display throughout this parsha and the parshiyos that follow?
In Midrash Tanchuma, the people of Israel themselves are seen to have posed this very question:
“Israel said: yesterday you claimed, ‘I am not a man of words’ and today you speak so much?”
Rabi Yitzchak supplies the answer and with it advice for the elocutively-challenged everywhere:
“If you are a stammerer, then study Torah repeatedly and you will be healed.”
Rabi Yitzchak suggests that it was Torah that transformed Moshe Rabbeinu into an orator. The repeated connection between thought and articulation helped the “shepherd of Yisro’s sheep” become the “shepherd of the flock” of Israel. I think, however, that we might read Rabi Yitzchak’s words with more precision. “Repeat the Torah,” he tells us. Read the words of the Torah twice. Follow the instruction of the Gemara in Berachos:
“One should keep up with the community in the weekly portion, reading the Scriptural verse twice and once in translation.”
This is not an unlikely reading at all, in my humble opinion, since Rabi Yitzchak was a colleague of Rabi Ami, the source of this statement. In at least three places in the Gemara that I can recall, the two are quoted as disagreeing with the Gemara, noting that there is some confusion as to which one said what: “Rabi Ami and Rabi Yitzchak disagree: one said… and one said…” This is not to suggest any confusion in tradition, only to assert that these two Talmudic sages were intimately involved in halachic discourse and that it is not at all forced to suggest that Rabi Yitzchak refers to a practice first mentioned by Rabi Ami.
Of more interest than this semi-historical aside is the content of Rabi Yitzchak’s explanation. Moshe Rabbeinu becomes the paradigm of an individual rendered eloquent through the learning of Torah. I am reminded of an incident many years ago when I was privileged to accompany a world-renowned Gadol to an important event. We encountered a friend of his whom he had not seen for several months. Their conversation was awkward until the topic turned to the sugya in Gemara that he was learning. This great man was not particularly expressive in other matters as I discovered driving him home, although he asked politely after my family and how we were settling in our new home. When the topic was Torah, however, his words flowed with confidence and ease. I have seen this pattern repeated on other occasions by other eminences.
If the Tanchuma’s question can be answered by what happened subsequently to Moshe Rabbeinu at Sinai, then it can also be answered by considering the specific context in which Moshe Rabbeinu made his claim. This is the approach of Rav Baruch ha-Levi Epstein z”l, among others. Although he is known principally for his commentary on Chumash entitled Torah Temima, he wrote a second commentary as well, eponymously entitled Tosefes Beracha. At the beginning of Parashas Devarim, Rav Epstein notes that Moshe Rabbeinu was responding to being sent on a diplomatic mission to Pharaoh when he described himself as not being a man of words. In this context, he intended specifically to disqualify himself for the delicate task of speaking to the ruler of all Egypt. It is this context that defines the meaning of his words. Raised in the royal court, the young Hebrew was likely familiar with the flowery language of the court. It was this special variety of speech for which he was unsuited. It requires special talents and experience to negotiate with those who walk the corridors of power.