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‘The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected’.
— Robert Frost
We find Israel immersed in a matter of oppression and controversy with the Amonite population near Gilead. Israel suffers years of oppression due to their abandonment of God. The people return and the Amonites muster troops against Israel. Yiftah, a man born of a harlot and an Israelite who is a citizen of Gilead, is expelled from living together with the siblings born of his father’s wife. He becomes an able warrior and gathers together a band of raiders.
He is approached by the people of Gilead to lead the war against Amon. In turn, he is to become the leader of Gilead. Yiftah chooses to open with an address to Amon. First he asks for an explanation for the hostilities. When he is told that the Israelites are living on stolen land, he sets the historic record straight by presenting a more accurate account of how Israel achieved the land upon which they are living, showing that it was rightfully theirs involving no theft. Yiftah sneers at the god of Amon, Kemosh, and says that if he is indeed powerful, let him contend with the God of Israel. They should think twice about starting a battle, he says.
Yiftah stresses that Israel has held the land in question for over 300 years. The Amonite king pays no heed to the words of Yiftah. Yiftah is ‘filled with the spirit of the Lord’ and marches into battle. He makes a vow saying that if he is victorious, that which exits his house first upon his safe return will be offered to God.
I have known Hacham Ovadia Yosef zt”l since I was a child. I distinctly remember listening to him lecture when he visited Los Angeles. I had no knowledge whatsoever of what he was saying — I did not understand one word. But I knew, at five years old, without any doubt, that what he was saying was exquisitely beautiful. To me it was as if every sentence was another diamond. Later I would strive to understand his words. I would listen not only to his sentences, but to his formulation, cadence, inflections and choice of terms. The beauty that I sensed as a child but did not understand, broadened and deepened in great detail and intricacy as my own maturity, awareness and learning developed. What he offered from his heart and soul entered mine. Who knew Jewish law could be so utterly breathtaking? Who knew that you could fall in love with legal rhetoric?
Growing up is hard work. There are many obstacles that stand before us as we advance in years. Life gets more complex, issues become more sophisticated, relationships bear greater nuance and the world reveals subtleties of all kinds to us that we often did not have the ability to detect as children.
When we are young we tend to see the world in concrete, rudimentary terms. We take things as they are presented to us, we speak our mind without consideration of how one hears us. But as we mature our ‘eyes open’ and we see a world of detail and intricacy that was hidden from us in our youth. Key components in the navigation of the complex logistics of life are speech and language.
Our ability to verbally articulate thought helps us understand reality in all of its complexity. With greater maturity comes a greater potential for effective articulation.
Yet, when words must go beyond articulation into communication, the words must not only mean something to you, they must bear appropriate meaning to those who are listening. When the ears of the listener are not tuned to the rhetoric of the speaker, communication fails. It is essentially like…speaking to a rock.
Now there was no water for the community…the people quarrelled with Moshe…’Why did you bring the assembly of God into this wilderness to die there?’…Then God spoke to Moshe saying: ‘You and Aharon your brother are to speak to the rock before their eyes so that it is to give forth water’. (Num., 20:8)
The rock that was to bear water for the people in the desert had no ears, no mind, nor would it understand human language. Why then would God have Moshe speak to a rock if it could not listen? Because between articulation and communication is another mode of speech that bears its own value: address.
There is certain value in speaking words even to those who cannot fully absorb them. Aiming our words towards someone or something is an intricate mode not of communication per se, but of expression and definition.
The address may not be wholly understood by the minds of the listeners but often, an address is an appeal to the heart rather than the mind. It is an offering to all who will hear, whether today or tomorrow. At the very least, the verbal expression itself helps define our own relationship with the object of our address.
Moshe was expected to express himself on behalf of Israel several times in our parasha towards entities that were not well-equipped to genuinely hear the words. It begins with literally addressing a rock!
Moshe did not, however, address the rock as he was commanded. Why, remains an enigma to generations of Hakahmim. Clearly there was something that held Moshe back from speaking to the rock. As the Netsiv points out God’s command was not to speak to the rock in the sense of communication but to it in the sense of address.
‘Speak to the rock’ – this does not mean to converse with the rock and command it to bring forth water, for after all, the rock cannot hear! …Rather God desired that Moshe and Aharon speak words of rebuke and guidance and pray by the rock.
It was not communication, but an address that was focused around the rock.
This was an aspect of speech that Moshe does indeed develop and use throughout the rest of the parasha. He addresses those who will not or cannot listen.
Moshe sent messengers from Kadesh to the King of Edom: Thus says your brother Israel: You know all the hardships that have found us: that we stayed in Egypt for many years, and Egypt ill-treated us and our fathers….Pray let us cross through your land…But Edom said to him you shall not cross through me, lest with the sword I come out to meet you. (20:14-18)
King Sihon of the Amorites:
Israel sent messengers to Sihon king of the Amorites saying: Let me cross your land, We will not spread out into the fields…we will not drink well water…Sihon gathered all his fighting people and went out to meet Israel in the wilderness…(21:21-23)
These were not people who were listening. This was not diplomacy. It was an address and it is a story of who we are in relation to them. The words are held by Torah so that they can be read by you and me.
Our haftara showcases this theme from the parasha. Yiftah also addressed a nation that was not really listening. We speak even to those who do not or cannot hear, because it is how mature, refined human beings express themselves. It puts ideas out into a world so that they are aimed at and affect a reality. If this heart does not hear it now, there will be a heart that will. We speak to them, we address them across time and space, here and now. Moshe grows to define his whole development of speech in such terms.
Not with you alone do I cut this covenant and this oath, but with the one that is here, standing with us today…and the one that is not here with us today. (Deut., 29:13-14)
A sub-theme of Moshe’s whole life is the development of his relationship to speech.
He begins as a man who cannot speak
Moshe said to God: Please Lord, no man of words am I…for heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue am I! (Ex., 4:10)
Only to become the man of words par excellence in speaking out the entire book of Debarim (Deuteronomy).
These are the words that Moshe spoke to all Israel….(Deut., 1:1)
Of course this only happens after Moshe discovers the value of address that lies between articulation and communication, through his interaction with Sihon.
These are the words Moshe spoke to all Israel…after he had struck Sihon….(ibid., 1:1,4)
Articulation is for my awareness, communication is for someone else’s. Address, however, is for posterity.
We aim our words to others as we would if they could hear, even if we are not communicating to them. Instead we are sharing with them and all who will hear.
Our hearts, can feel what our thoughts cannot necessarily process. We will hear beautiful words and not understand them, but know, nonetheless, that they were beautiful. We as children, with our rudimentary minds, experience an event replete with nuance only to reflect back on it in later years and finally grasp it. People will speak words to us now that only our grandchildren will understand. But we must do it. For in so doing we address God’s creation, where He holds our words in trust until they can bear full affect.
Those who revere God have been talking to one another. The Lord has heard and noted it, and a scroll of remembrance has been written at His behest concerning those who revere the Lord and esteem His name. (Malakhi, 3:16)
It is therefore, worth, at times, speaking to an immature audience in mature terms so that the edges of nuance and subtlety can be introduced through them, and the intricacy of God’s creation can be shared with them.
Furthermore, when we are with someone who can see or hear something that we cannot, we have the ability to connect to it through them. For this reason we are told to spend our time with sages, so that we might find interface into the world that they see through interaction with them. The heart stores it and offers it up to the mind when it is ready to listen.
Yiftah indeed opens up a world of hope and life for Israel as his name indicates (yiftah literally means ‘will open’ in Hebrew). In his commitment to addressing Amon and expressing who Israel is in relation to them, he opened up a world of truth both to Amon and to Israel. Amon’s response was war, Israel’s was victory.
There are times when we will say something to our children even though they do not understand, we will write a letter to someone and not send it, we will speak to an audience but aim our words to their descendants, write books that will be rejected by contemporaries but adored by generations to come. All this we do because addressing a reality with our language, expressing thought into the world changes the world; perhaps not now, perhaps not today, but someday, and that is, indeed, enough.
Rabbi Joseph Dweck
 He’emek Dabar, 20:8
67 Para aduma: laws of purification (19:1-22)
68 Miriam dies. People complain for water (20:1-6)
69a The story of Moshe, Aharon and hitting the rock
69b Punishment for Moshe and Aharon (20:12-13)
69c King of Edom refuses passage through his land
70a Aharon dies. Kohen Gadol clothing is passed on to
70b Successful war with Cana’anites (21:1-3)
71a Complaints lead to fiery snakes and salvation by a
brass snake. Journeys (21:4-16)
71b Well song. Journeys (21:17-20)
72a Conquering the Emorite Kingdoms. Defeat of Og
the King of Bashan (21:21-22:1)
Taken from, ‘Torah for Everyone’ by Rabbi Dr Raphael Zarum, Dean of LSJS