Following are some of the ideas, insights and interpretations that emerge from our weekly Chumash learning group at the Young Israel of Oceanside, Long Island. We cite sources when possible. Some of our interpretations may derive from ideas we may have seen elsewhere, possibly without attribution. Or we may simply have forgotten the source. For this we apologize. We invite your comments, observations and participation.
As the nation prepares to enter the Promised Land from east of the Jordan River, Moshe…
• Rebukes and exhorts
• Once again teaches the Torah [moral guidance or religious precepts or entire sum of religious doctrine and life]
Moshe recounts the forty-year desert wanderings…
• The commandment to leave Mt. Horev
• The establishment of a judicial hierarchy to administer justice
• The Spies incident
• The avoidance of the lands of Edom, Mo’av and Ammon
• The defeat of the nations of Cheshbon (and its King, Sichon) and Habashan (and its King, Og)
• Allotment of the lands east of the Jordan River to Re’uvain, Gad and half the tribe of Menashe
Instructions for the planned battle to conquer the land of Cana’an, that was to be led by Yehoshua
Compression of History in the Word Eicha
This parsha is read on the Shabbos before Tisha B’av. The word Eicha— “oh, how can; how did it happen”—appears…
In the parsha when Moshe laments to God about his inability to be the sole leader of the Israelites (because of their rapid population growth)
In the Haftorah where the prophet Isaiah describes “Eicha (how did it happen that) the faithful city (Jerusalem) has become a harlot.”
In the book of Eicha—Lamentations— which will be read this week on the eve of Tisha B’av.
Eicha links periods of woe in Jewish history that confront us during this period of sadness and mourning.
We again are living through dangerous periods of Eicha as we read about and see the death of so many innocent Jews and Israeli soldiers and civilians. We are witnessing the frightening worldwide surge in open anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment and behavior.
Iran’s buildup of both its conventional and nuclear arsenal poses an existential threat to Israel and to world Jewry. One is reminded of past British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlin (known for his appeasement policy toward Adolph Hitler) and his signing the Munich Agreement with Nazi Germany in 1938 and jubilantly announcing that this accord with Germany would bring “peace for our time”. A year later, however, Hitler decided that the agreement was “just a scrap of paper” and invaded Poland. A few days later Britain and France declared war on Nazi Germany and World War II began.
Western world leaders need to be repeatedly reminded of the words of George Santayana that “those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it”.
On the Name and Structure of Sefer Devarim
Devarim means “words”; it is the Book of Words. It is also referred to as Mishna Torah (“repetition” or “learning”) of the Torah. The Greek translation is “second Law”, like the Latin name for the Book, Deuteronomy.
The Sefer consists of a series of farewell speeches by Moshe as he prepares the Israelites for their entry into the Promised Land. It is a Last Will and Testament in which he pleads for the Jews to “keep the faith” when they populate and inhabit their homeland. It is filled with narrative, historic retrospect, poetry and some hundred laws.
In his Meditations on the Torah, Rav B.S. Jacobson cites…
Rabbi Dovid Zvi Hoffman (1843-1921), who divides Devarim into three main addresses:
The first one is admonitory, as Moshe reviews the Israelites’ behavior in the preceding forty years
The second address, which covers most of the Book, is legislative
The third is covenantal, describing God’s Covenant between Himself and His people
Don Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508) who draws our attention to the fact that in Devarim (more than in the other Books of the Torah) Moshe speaks in the first person. Abravanel’s view is that after hearing Moshe’s stirring words, God concurred, then dictated and arranged the words that Moshe recorded. (Note: the Lubavitcher Rebbe views the Sefer as a “Divinely inspired work of the human mind” that is the precursor of later prophetic works and of Rabbinic law.)
The Vilna Gaon (1720-1797) who suggests that the three-time reference to “Moshe’s speaking” in the opening five verses is meant to be part of a preface to a tripartite division of Devarim, in which each section also corresponds to one of the previous three previous Books of the Torah.
Devarim symbolically encompasses the Torah; the Book of Beraishes, the root of the middle three Books, did not need to be referenced.
Rabbi Marc Angel notes that what follows the introductory phrase “Moshe took upon himself to expound the Torah” is not an expected listing and explanation of Torah laws and interpretations. Instead, there is a history of the Israelites during their desert wanderings since the Exodus from Egypt. Moshe apparently felt it urgent for the Israelites to remember and to understand their own experiences if they were to comprehend the ideas and ethics of the Torah. Only a solid grounding in history and observances can provide the framework and foundation for improving society. Rabbi Angel concludes that it was only after “they had a solid and clear sense of their specific context and their specific identity, they could go on to play their spiritual role in the unfolding of human civilization”.
Rabbi Menachem Leibtag’s approach
Mishna Torah cannot mean a repeat or review or summary because…
• No mention is made of the Beraishes stories
• There are few details of the Exodus and nothing about the Mishkan
• Only a few mitzvos or stories from the Vayikra are mentioned
• Many of the Bamidbar stories and mitzvos are omitted
• Devarim introduces many new mitzvos
Devarim is about speeches: the main, very important and very long speech by Moshe before his death is preceded by introductory, shorter speeches and is followed by concluding statements. By examining the places where the text changes from the third person to the first person, Rabbi Leibtag develops the following structure:
The main speech consists largely of mitzvot received at Mt. Sinai with some additional comments relating to the experiences of the forty-year desert trek. All the mitzvot were given at Sinai, but not all were previously recorded in the Torah. The mitzvot cited in Sefer Devarim are, by in large, those that are applicable in the Promised Land.
Moshe opens his main speech with “Listen Israel to the Chukim and Mishpatim…” But before he begins, he prefaces with …
o The critical idea that everyone is obligated to keep the laws
o The recollection of the Mt. Sinai experience some forty years earlier
o The reminder that the obligation to follow the laws is rooted in the Covenant with God, part of which is the Ten Commandments
o The fact that the Mitzvot that will be taught are the same laws first given at Mt. Sinai
The theme of Devarim is repetition. “V’shenatam” is also related to the Hebrew word root “to repeat” in addition to the root “to teach”. Not only must the Mitzvos be learned; they also require constant repetition. The word Mishne, points out Rabbi Leibtag, is also from the root word “leshanen”, “to repeat”. MishnaTorah consists of the rules and laws that were taught many times by Moshe and continue to require on-going review and study.
The opening verse “Ayle Ha’devorim” [“these are the words”] refers to the Mitzvot that that already had been repeated in the places listed and were also taught during the eleven-day journey from “Har Chorev to Kadesh Barnea”. Then in the fortieth year Moshe taught these laws one last time “after the defeat of Sichon…”
The reference to the eleven-day journey draws our attention to the first generation’s final preparation to conquer the Land. But because of their lack of faith they were destined to wander and die. This second generation of Israelites finds itself in the same situation—about to enter the Promised Land. Moshe gathers and repeats the mitzvot to the people one last time to bolster their faith and prevent a recurrence of their parents’ mistake.
The Incident of the Spies
In his review of the forty-year desert wanderings, Moshe focuses on the Israelites’ sins. But why the initial focus on the incident of the spies and not, for example the Golden Calf episode? Also, there are glaring variations between the way the story is told here and the way it was initially reported:
• Here it states that the Israelites demanded the spies; initially it was reported that God ordered the sending of the spies.
• Here it states that twelve men were chosen for the mission. Earlier these people were described as prominent heads of the children of Israel.
• Here the spies are quoted as having only said “good is the land”. In the original account, they go into a much more detailed report.
• Here the Israelites are described as “murmuring in their tents”. The original story makes no mention of this behavior.
• Here the people are described as questioning how they can possibly go up to fight. In the original version, they unequivocally state that they are unwilling to go up against peoples that are stronger!
Rabbi Hoffman explains the difference in style and purpose. In Bamidbar Moshe was acting as an historian recording the events. But here…
He is interpreting the incident to reemphasize the moral truth that each of us is responsible for our actions
He is exhorting the people to remember that one has to resist evil. Citing the behavior of a superior or leader or colleague is no excuse for one’s wrongful behavior.
Nechama Leibowitz concludes that here Moshe is emphasizing the direct responsibility of the ancestors for their actions. They wanted to send spies and, therefore, it was their responsibility for what happened afterwards.
It was for this reason that the Torah now referred to the selected spies as men (and not exalted leaders) to prevent excusing their and their parents’ behavior by arguing that they were merely following the conduct of their esteemed and prominent leaders!
Because he wants to focus on the Israelites’ behavior (and not the spies’ behavior) --on their private murmurings and on their lack of faith in God--Moshe purposely minimizes the details of the spies’ report.
Moshe’s goal is to encourage the current generation to not follow in the ways of their parents.
The administration of Justice is at the heart of Judaism. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calculates that the words for judgement, tzedek and mishpat, appear in Sefer Devarim eighteen and forty-eight times, respectively. Later in the Sefer we are commanded “tzedek tzedek terdof” [“justice, justice shall you pursue”]. In this week’s parsha the Judges are warned to maintain their impartiality in judging:
They are not to favor persons in judgement
They must hear [pay attention to] the small and the great alike
They are not to be fearful of any man
Throughout history we are introduced to individuals who will be bold enough to confront even God in their pursuit of Justice:
Avraham Avinu, “representing” the citizens of Sodom accuses God of being unfair in His plan to destroy both the good and the evil residents of that doomed city
Defending either humanity or the Israel nation, Moshe accuses God on several occasions of being unjust
The Rebbe of Berditchev [R’ Levi Yitzchak, 1740-1810] was a Chassidic leader, known to be an advocate for the Jewish people. He held trials and subpoenaed God to appear in his rabbinic court to answer charges of breaking His side of His covenant with His people. In a poem/prayer entitled “a din tore mit Gutt” [“lawsuit against God”] he challenges God: “What have You against Your people Israel…why do You oppress Your people Israel…I will not move from my place. An end there must be [to this suffering]. It must all stop!”
Furthermore, Rabbi Sacks focuses on the three features that mark Judaism as a unique faith:
The “radical idea that when God reveals Himself to humans He does so in the form of law”. God is order, which in the human world takes the form of moral law. The source is Torah which means “law” in addition to “guidance” and “teaching”
We humans are charged with the responsibility to be interpreters of the law. Our Oral law and tradition sheds light on the Written Torah
The critical role played by education, particularly in Torah, in Judaism. Studying, becoming familiar with, understanding and applying Torah law brings spirituality into the mundane.