By Joy Scott, Am Haskalah Congregant
This week’s Torah parsha, Devarim, is the first in the last book of the Torah, Deuteronomy. The entire book denotes a major shift from each of the four earlier Books. We read how Moses served as the liaison between God’s Word and the Israelites; their leader and teacher for over forty years; and a man who sacrificed his own ‘self’ to the Lord and to the Children of Israel. He suffered severe agony and disappointment when he learned that Joshua, rather than either of his two sons, was chosen to be his successor. However, even more devastating was God’s irrevocable decision that Moses was destined to die in the desert; never to even step foot on the ‘Promised Land.’
It is these two facts, which lend significant poignancy to this week’s parsha (Devarim).
The translation of the Hebrew ‘devarim’ is ‘WORD;’ and it is Moses’ words, which we read throughout the entire Book of Deuteronomy: “These are the words which Moses spoke to all of Israel, on that side of the desert” (1).
This week’s parsha (Devarim) marks the beginning of Moses’ farewell address to the Children of Israel, who were born into freedom.
Our sages contend that God’s communications with Moses were much more in-depth than what is indicated in the written text of the Torah. According to Maimonides: “Moses wrote down many of these discussions; but, kept them private for his own use; and, as a teaching tool” (2). In effect in this first parsha of the Book of Deuteronomy, we are introduced to both the ‘Oral Torah’ and the ‘Written Torah.’
Moses speaks to this new generation, regarding the sins of their parents, with specific emphasis on the failure of ten of the twelve elders, who exaggerated the difficulties of conquering the land of Canaan. He explains how their loss of confidence and faith in God, was a clear manifestation of their fear of living independent of God’s miracles. This resulted in the punishment of all the Israelites of that generation, to continue wandering in the desert, with no hope of ever seeing the ‘Promised Land.’ Moses openly claimed responsibility for his own ‘sin;’ and described the traits of Joshua, which would certainly qualify him to be the next leader and teacher of this young generation.
In his speech, Moses does not dwell only upon the sins of the last generation. He provides hope and encouragement: “The Lord, your God, has multiplied you; and behold, today you are as the stars in heaven” (3)
Furthermore, Moses explains the egalitarian system of justice, which was created whereby each individual is judged equally, regardless of wealth or stature. He stresses the importance of compliance with these laws and judicial dictates.
This first parsha (Devarim) of the Book of Deuteronomy provides us, not only with a more profound sense of the power of the ‘WORD,’ but also the critical importance in Judaism of repetition of previous events. This is how we continue to learn ‘right’ from ‘wrong,’ ‘good’ from ‘bad,’ to the extent that it is intertwined with our DNA, to be passed from one generation to the next.
(1) DEUTERONOMY (1:1)
(2) Maimonides, “Introduction to the Mishnah Torah”
(3) DEUTERONOMY (1:10)