By Rabbi Yitzchok D. Frankel
Agudath Israel of the Five Towns
And Moshe spoke to the heads of the tribes of the Bnei Yisrael, saying, “This is the word that Hashem has commanded.”
“This is the word.”—Moshe prophesied using the expression, “So said Hashem, ‘At the splitting of the night, etc.’” (Sh’mos 11:4), and the other prophets prophesied using the expression, “So said Hashem.” But in addition Moshe prophesied using the language, “This is the word.”
What is the significance of introducing a prophecy with the expression “This is the word,” rather than “So said Hashem”? Also, why is this difference between Moshe’s language and that of the other prophets emphasized here? Although this is not the only time the expression “This is the word” is used, it is not used frequently; therefore, wherever we find it we must try to understand why the Torah chose to emphasize Moshe’s unique abilities in that particular place.
To answer these questions, we must first realize that wherever the Torah uses the words zeh or zos—“this”—it indicates that the object spoken of is such that one can point to it with one’s finger. Rashi tells us this in a number of places in the Chumash; for instance, in connection with the sanctification of the new moon.
Similarly, when the word zeh appears in connection with the machatzis ha’shekel—the half-shekel coin given by each adult male for the construction of the Mishkan (Sh’mos 30:13)—and the Golden Menorah (Bamidbar 8:4), Rashi informs us that HaKadosh Baruch Hu showed Moshe Rabbeinu these items with His finger as well.
The trouble is that in the expression zeh ha’davar, the word zeh is used in connection with something seemingly intangible—a mere bit of speech. One can point to the moon and one can point to a coin or a candelabra, but how is it possible to point to a “word”?
We must understand, however, that our conceptions are exactly backward. We live in a materialistic world, so it appears to us that physical objects and actions have reality, whereas speech, however sublime, is intangible, on a par with emotion and aesthetics. Even an oath—the most powerful type of speech—seems to us something completely intangible and therefore of minimal significance. When someone says something improper, we are liable to dismiss it as “only words.” What difference do a few words make?
We must know, however, that in the real world—the world of ruchniyus—physical objects and actions are less substantial than speech. In that world, substantiality is measured by closeness to Hashem. The higher an object’s source and the closer to Hashem, the more substantial it is. Gashmiyus—physicality—is the antithesis of ruchniyus. Its source is very far removed from Hashem; consequently, in that world it has very little substantiality.
By contrast, speech has extraordinary significance. Speech is a manifestation of the very essence of the soul. One should not confuse human speech with the twittering of hummingbirds. A person’s words emanate from a much higher source than even his actions. Through words we imbue things with sanctity. In most areas of halachah the rule is “devarim shebalev einam devarim,” words kept in the heart have no halachic significance; and even spoken words make little impression on us. We are too far removed from the spiritual world to appreciate their significance. That is why when we want to make an acquisition or a binding commitment, we must finalize it with a kinyan—a physical action demonstrating complete intent. Words alone are insufficient.
When it comes to sanctification, the rule is amiraso legavo’ah kemesiraso lehedyot, a mere verbal gift to Heaven has the same force as actual transference to a human being (Kiddushin 28b). One can give a gift to hekdesh—the realm of the sanctified—even if the giver and the gift are on opposite sides of the globe, through speech alone. Similarly, when we want to sanctify Shabbos, what do we do? We sanctify it through words. The commandment of “Zachor es yom haShabbos lekadsho,” “Remember the Sabbath day to sanctify it” (Sh’mos 20:8), means that we must sanctify it through devarim—words. And when a man performs kiddushin—betrothal—to his bride to be, how does he do it? Again with words, although they must be accompanied by a physical act. In this case the dual nature of the procedure reflects the dual nature of marriage. The connection between a husband and wife has both a spiritual and a physical component. The material and physical commitment is concluded through a physical act, while the spiritual bond is accomplished through devarim.
The ability to use words creatively is what separates the human being from the animals and reveals the presence of his exalted neshamah—the Divine soul.
At the creation of Adam, Onkelos renders: “And Hashem Elokim created Adam dust from the earth and blew into his nostrils a life-giving soul (nishmasa dechayi); and it became within Adam a speaking spirit (ruach memalela).” (Targum Onkelos, Bereishis 2:7)
Note that just a few pesukim later, with respect to the animals, Onkelos renders the expression “nefesh chayah” as “nafsha chaysa” (2:19). Only the human being’s nefesh chayah is a ruach memalela—a “speaking spirit.” Speech is the defining characteristic of the human being.
It is understandable, then, that sins of speech are so much more severe in the eyes of Heaven than those done through action, although to human eyes they may not seem so. Chazal tell us that lashon ha’ra is comparable to the three greatest sins of action—murder, sexual immorality, and idol worship (Arachin 16b). Elsewhere they list four groups of sinners that do not merit greeting the Shechinah—scoffers, liars, flatterers, and slanderers (Sanhedrin 103a). Note that the members of all four groups are guilty of sins of speech.
Moshe Rabbeinu was not an ordinary prophet; Moshe lived in the Olam HaRuchni—the spiritual world. For him, dibbur had real substance. He could actually see dibbur. (The rest of the Bnei Yisrael received just a taste of this ability when they “saw” the sounds at Matan Torah; see Sh’mos 20:15.) Therefore Moshe could say, “Zeh ha’davar asher tzivah Hashem”—“This is the word that Hashem commanded.” For him, the “word of Hashem” was something he could point to.
When Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon was wrapped in a sefer Torah and burned alive, the rabbis present asked him what he saw. He declared, “Gilayon nisrafin v’osiyos porchos!”—The parchment is burning but the letters are ascending! (Avodah Zarah 18a). At that moment he was able to perceive the physical letters transformed into their spiritual manifestations. Nevertheless, only Moshe was able to perceive words as they exited the mouth.
Now let us move on to the second question—Why is Moshe’s special ability emphasized here of all places? I believe it is because this pasuk introduces a discussion of the halachos of nedarim—vows. These halachos in particular are dependent upon the power of dibbur to create reality. Through a neder, a person can take something that is totally permitted to him and make it prohibited. From where does he derive this power? It comes from his nishmas chaim—the special life-giving soul that is unique to the human being and especially the Jew. This is his ruach memalela.
Only Bnei Yisrael have the power to make nedarim and shevuos—binding vows and oaths. Their speech can create and destroy entire spiritual worlds. Shevuos are even more potent realities than nedarim. The third dibbur of the Aseres HaDibbros reads: “Do not take the name of Hashem Elokecha in vain, for Hashem will not exonerate one who takes His name in vain.” (Sh’mos 20:7)
The Gemara notes that it is only with respect to this aveirah that the Torah declares, “Lo yinakeh!”—He will not exonerate him! This is not said of any other transgression, even the violation of nedarim (Nedarim 18a). How can mere words have more severity than any other crime? It is because the power of dibbur emanates from the highest worlds.
We can understand, then, why Moshe Rabbeinu chose to impress upon us at this point the significance of words through his use of the expression “zeh ha’davar.” Before we can understand the severity of vows and oaths, we must realize that words have not only meaning, but real substance. They are things one can point to. This is the point Moshe was trying to make. It is only tangentially that we learn something of his greatness as a navi—that for him words were tangible realities.
I will just note parenthetically that in previous parashiyos we have explained other instances of this expression differently, each one according to the context. See Parashas Beshalach, “Close Encounter” and “Yes, We have Manna Today” and Parashas Vayakheil, “Clear Visibility.” v
Rabbi Frankel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Now in print: Machat shel Yad Vayikra.