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 for entry into the promised land (from east of the Jordan River) Moshe once again teaches the Torah; recounts how early on he appointed judges to assist him and reminds the nation of the spies incident…Avoiding the lands of Edom , Mo’av and Amon…Defeating and conquering Sichion , King of Heshbon and Og the King of Habashan…Allotting conquered lands east of the Jordan River to the tribes of Reuvain, Gad and half of Manasseh.
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 moans to God about his inability to be the sole leader of the Israelites (because of their rapid population growth). It appears again in the Haftorah where the prophet Isaiah describes “Eicha (how did it happen that) the faithful city (Jerusalem) has become a harlot.” And the book of Eicha—Lamentations—is read on Tisha B’av. Eicha links periods of woe in Jewish history that confront us during this period of sadness and mourning.
On the name and structure of the Sefer Devarim
Devarim means “words” ; it is the Book of Words. It is also referred to as Mishne Torah (repetition or learning) of the Torah. The Greek translation is “second Law” similar to the Latin name for the Book, Deuteronomy.
The Sefer consists of a series of farewell speeches by Moshe as he prepares Israel 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 100 laws.
In his Meditations on the Torah, Rav B.S. Jacobson cites a number of interesting observations:
Rabbi David Zvi Hoffman (1843-1921) divides Devarim into three main addresses. The first one is admonitory as Moshe reviews the Israelites’ behavior in the preceding 40 years. The second address, which covers most of the Book is legislative and the third is covenantal, describing God’s Covenant between Himself and His people.
Don Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508) 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 opines that after hearing Moshe’s stirring words, God concurred, then dictated and arranged the words that Moshe then 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) 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 three previous Books of the Torah. Devarim symbolically encompasses the Torah; Beraishes is the root of the middle three.
Rabbi Menachem Leibtag’s approach
Mishneh Torah cannot mean a repeat or review or summary because…
• no mention is made of the Breishit 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 comes up with the following structure:
Moshe opens his main speech with “Listen Israel to the Chukim and Mishpatim…” But before he begins, he prefaces with …
• Everyone is obligated to keep the laws
• The recollection of the Mt. Sinai experience
some 40 years earlier
• The reminder that the obligation to follow the laws is rooted in the Covenant with God, part of which is the Ten Commandments
• The fact that the Mitzvot that will be taught are the same laws first given at Mt. Sinai
The main speech consists largely of Mitzvot received at Mt. Sinai with some additional comments relating to the experiences of the 40 year desert trek. The Mitzvot cited largely will relate to those that will be applicable when the Israelites enter the Promised Land. All the Mitzvot were given at Sinai, but not all were previously recorded in the Torah.
The theme of Devarim is repetition. ”V’shenatam” is from the root “to repeat” rather than from the root word “to teach”. Not only must the Mitzvos be learned; they also require constant repetition. The word Mishne, says Rabbi Liebtag, is also from the root word “leshanen”, “to repeat”. Mishne Torah is then the (special) set of rules and laws included in Sefer Devarim that were repeated often and continue to require constant repetition.
The opening verse “Ayle Hadvorim” refers to the Mitzvos that later will be described in Moshe’s main speech that already had been repeated over and over again in the places listed and were also taught during the 11 day journey from “Har Chorev to Kadesh Barnea”. (This, in addition to teaching them at Mt. Sinai.) Then in the 40th year Moshe will again teach these laws one last time “after the defeat of Sichon…”
The reference to the 11 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 Mitzvos 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 40 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? And why are there some glaring variations between the way the story is told here and the way it was initially reported in Parshat Shelach?
• 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 are described as prominent heads of the children of Israel.
• Here the spies are quoted with the terse report “good is the land”. In the original account they go into a much more detailed description .
• Here the Israelites are described as “murmuring in their tents”. The original story makes no mention of this behavior.
• Here the people are described questioning how they can possibly go up to fight. In the original version they unequivocally state that they cannot go up against peoples that are stronger!
Rabbi Hoffman comments on the difference in style and purpose. In Bamidbar Moshe was an historian recording the events but here he is exhorting the people to learn from the lesson of history. Here Moshe is interpreting the incident to highlight how every person is responsible for his own behavior, how we must resist evil and how we must realize that citing the behavior of a superior or leader or colleague is no excuse for one’s behavior. We are each responsible for our own actions.
The incident as recounted here reflects Moshe’s admonition of the Israelites and the details provided are meant to drive home the message. 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 just twelve men (and not exalted leaders) to prevent excusing the behavior of their parents (and their own) who might argue that they were merely following the behavior of their esteemed and prominent leaders!
Because Moshe focuses on the Israelites behavior (and not the spies’ behavior)--on their private murmurings, on their lack of faith in God--he purposely avoids the details of the spies’ report.
Moshe’s goal is to encourage the current generation not to follow in the ways of their parents. He emphasizes the individual’s responsibility and culpability. De-emphasizing the role of the spies, Moshe wants to impress on his audience…and on us… the consequences of not having faith in God.