Devarim

Deuteronomy is considered the most important of all the Books of Moses – and while the Orthodox believe that it was written together with the other four Books, many scholars and Conservative Rabbis believe that it was written much later. It stands out as a highly monotheistic text and it presents us with the core basis of Judaism – starting with the recitation of the Shema Yisroel Adonai Elohanu Adonai Echad. It repeats and adds language to the 10 Commandments – notably to guard and keep the Sabbath. It enjoins us to chant the Birkhat Hamazon after eating; it elaborates the commandment to put up Mezzuzim on our doorposts and to wrap Teffilin. It stresses the covenant between God and the people of Israel. It tells us to live holy and just lives. It creates in us excitement about the life of spirituality we will live in Israel. It is an extremely humanitarian text – expressing over and over concern for the poor and needy. Deuteronomy centralizes and localizes sacrifice to the Temple in Jerusalem. It continues to remind us to study Torah and to understand its obligations and implications. And most importantly it instructs us to love God with all our hearts.

The Book of Deuteronomy, called Devarim in Hebrew, opens with the Israelites standing at the bank of the Jordan River, ready to cross over into the Promised Land.

“These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan....” (Deuteronomy 1:1)

It is from this opening line that the Book of Deuteronomy takes its Hebrew name, Devarim, meaning "words." And that is what Deuteronomy essentially is: Moses' words. While most of the other books of the Torah since Exodus are expressed in God's words, spoken through Moses, Deuteronomy is Moses' discourse, reiterating God's teachings and exhorting the People of Israel to follow God's commands. The Rabbinic name for this book is Mishneh HaTorah - the "second law" (not to be confused with Maimonides's code of law called the Mishnah Torah), since almost everything in Deuteronomy has been stated before, albeit in a different context.

It is also notable in this opening passage that Moses spoke to all Israel. The entire people who made it to the border of the Promised land gather to listen to the words of their leader. As Rashi notes, if some of the people were absent, they might have been able to deny that Moses had said all that he said. By gathering the entire people together, all heard the same words at the same time, and all had the opportunity on the spot to reply if they so wished.

So back to the story -

Knowing that his days as leader of the People of Israel, and his life, have come to an end, Moses takes this opportunity to impart some final words of wisdom, encouragement, and rebuke. Deuteronomy is then, in effect, one long speech - Moses' "swan-song" so to speak - delivered over a two-week period at the end of the Israelites' forty year journey.

Parsha Devarim begins with Moses recounting the history of the Exodus, from the giving of the second set of tablets at Sinai through to the incident of the 12 spies. Moses highlights his own role as leader, and blames the people for the fact that he has been prohibited from entering the Land. Special attention is also paid to the promise of the Land. Moses notes the establishment of the Sanhedrin and the Judicial system. Moses then jumps ahead and reviews some of the final battles that have been fought, including the battles with Sichon and Og and the acquisition of land to the east of the Jordan (in which they were standing). At the end of this portion, Joshua, who will assume the role of leadership after Moses, is assured that, just as God led Israel to victory in the wilderness, so too God will lead Israel in battle when they cross into the Land.

The theme of this section is neatly summarized; “Adonai your God has blessed you in all your undertakings. God has watched over your wanderings through this great wilderness. Adonai your God has been with you these past forty years: you have lacked nothing.”

Moses uses this opportunity to remind the Israelites of key lessons they will need as they enter Israel: that a lack of trust in God and lack of obedience to God’s will results in calamity, and that conversely, faith and obedience result in victory. God is the warrior who does battle on Israel’s behalf. Moses relates how the disobedience and rebellion of the tribes led to their defeat by the Amorites and the condemnation of the first generation to death in the wilderness, and how the second generation’s trust led to military victories over enemy rulers, King Sihon and King Og. The conclusion that Moses derives from Israel’s liberation and early wandering is this” “You have seen with your own eyes all that Adonai your God has done to these two kings; so shall Adonai do to all the kingdoms into which you shall cross over. Do not fear them, for it is Adonai your God who will battle for you.”

Themes

Much of Moses’ discourse to the people involves rebuke or criticism of them. How does criticism affect people? With our modern intellect, we know that criticism is a poor motivator – in fact it is most often the opposite of motivating – it makes us give up.

It's human nature to analyze, criticize, and judge each other, to some degree.  We judge and evaluate each other on many different things - ex., physical appearance and attractiveness, personality, intelligence, heart, character, values, beliefs, spirituality, occupation, ambition, success, status, wealth, possessions.  Judgment and criticism can, of course, be constructive, and may be very helpful.  When they're negative, however, they can be very hurtful, harmful, and destructive.

When criticism and judgment are negative, they can lead to many things that are very detrimental.  They can, for example, lead to being deeply hurt, to believing that one is not good enough, in some way, to low self-worth, low self-esteem, to feeling inferior, and to feeling, therefore, that one is not desired or loved enough, and to insecurity, to fear - fear of being hurt again, fear of being rejected, abandoned, and to building walls within oneself to protect oneself from emotional pain, walls that can cause one to feel much less, because they not only wall out the pain, but they may also wall out a lot of the good feelings, and these walls become emotional blocks that can be very difficult to be free of.  Self-protective walls also often come between people and cause them to be emotionally disconnected, separated, much less in touch with their feelings and love for each other.  Being criticized and judged can not only be very hurtful, create fear and the building of self-protective walls, they can also cause great anger, resentment, hatred, and conflict.

The most important negative effect of criticism and judgment is on our identities, our sense of who we are.  Philosophically, the two most important things in life are knowing who we   are, and knowing how to become who we are.  The great Greek philosopher Socrates said "Know Thyself".  Who are we?  Since we were made in the "image and likeness of God" (Genesis 1:26), we are God, in Reality, His Sons and Daughters.  That is our true identity and potential.  Yet, all the criticism and judgment that we have received in our lives has caused most of us to lose our connection to the Divine aspects of our Selves.

OK – so here we have a conundrum.

The words that Moses spoke to us before we entered Israel were words of rebuke – criticism.

How do we reconcile this?

Rashi writes that Moses, "is enumerating all the places where they {the people} provoked God to anger." The midrash goes on to say that Moses chided no one until shortly before their death. He wanted to make sure that they would not get into the habit of repeating rebukes, for that would evoke a negative reaction (Yalkut, Devarim 800). Now, just before his own death, Moses take the opportunity to rebuke the entire community. It is said in Proverbs (28:23), "He that rebukes another shall in the end find more favour." As a credit to his skills as a preacher, we are told that the people were fully and unanimously receptive to Moses' criticisms (Sifrei, Devarim 1:1).

No one likes to hear criticism or be taken to task for our own shortcomings. But it is important for our own growth and development on occasion to hear from those we love and respect (and who love and respect us) when we may have strayed from the path to our best selves. As the leader of the people, Moses had to earn their love and respect before he could admonish them. As Rabbi Peli concludes, "Moses realizes that only a leader who had risked his own life and brought much good to his people has the right to rebuke them for their shortcomings. He must have wanted to say these "words" earlier, but he waited for the right moment. That is why the biblical narrative puts so much emphasis on the place and time of Moses' speech."

The Bottom Line: The outcome of rebuke is accepting responsibility. Moses could not let the people enter Israel until they took responsibility for their actions.

More themes:

Reviewing our past and looking ahead - although a few mitzvot are introduced for the first time here, it is largely a recapitulation of what has already been taught. You might say that collected in this last book of the Torah are Moshe's masterful "Final Lectures on Jewish Fundamentals," delivered in the last five weeks of his life to the generation about to enter the Land of Israel. As Ramban [Nachmanidies] explains in his introduction to the book, these lectures were meant to further elucidate certain points of the mitzvot, and to provide earnest, sometimes severe admonition--especially regarding all forms of idolatry. (Earlier generations, especially the one about to enter the Land, obviously needed much urging on that topic, as they lived in a world steeped in idol worship.) Because the Kohanim were particularly zealous in performing their duties, Moshe did not need to review the laws of korbanot (offerings), or of priestly purity, which comprise much of the book of Vayikra [Leviticus]. Ramban goes on to point out that Moshe did not launch straight into his review of the Torah's laws. Rather, he opened with words of rebuke, recounting the various transgressions of the Jewish people in the Wilderness. A good part of this week's parsha, in fact, is devoted to a lengthy retelling of the sin of the Spies (meraglim) which was the direct cause of the decree to wander in the Wilderness for 40 years. [See Numbers, Chapters 13 & 14, for the whole account.] Why did Moshe open up with a critical review of their recent past? The purpose was not only to reprimand the Jewish people, Ramban explains, but also to encourage them! By showing them how God had constantly dealt with them in a merciful way (despite their transgressions), Moshe hoped to strengthen them in their desire to follow Him and keep His Torah. An important concept, often forgotten: God's forgiveness is meant to be more than just a merciful reprieve from punishment (or annihilation) due to wrongdoing from the past; it is supposed to be a positive incentive to serving Him better in the future. Forgiveness (following our own teshuva, or repentance) is not chiefly about "getting us off the hook," but about "getting us back in the game, and up to the plate." Ramban quotes a well-known verse from Chapter 130 of Psalms to support this idea: "Because with You is forgiveness, in order that You be feared." For many, this may be a new way of understanding these words (recited very often in communal supplication on behalf of sick people). The true purpose of God's forgiveness is to help us fear Him (i.e., have greater awe and awareness of Him in our lives). And just how does forgiveness help us fear? Although Ramban doesn't elaborate, the simple meaning seems to be that God's mercy will inspire us with gratitude, and lead us to want to increase our awe of Him and ultimately to take steps to do so. After experiencing God’s mercy (as we do most vividly on Yom Kippur, say, or perhaps after recovering from a serious illness), we will more graciously accept the yoke of Heaven on ourselves in response. Really, the fact that God forgives me, despite my lapses of attention to Him and His Torah (and despite His power over life and death), creates an obligation in me to live my life with more awareness of His greatness and with more attention to fulfilling His expectations for me. We need to remember our past transgressions, and how God has dealt with us mercifully despite them (granting us continued life, health, success, etc.). Then (He hopes) we will learn--or be reminded--to have more awe of Him. As King David wrote: "Because with You is forgiveness, [and You allow us to experience that mercy] in order that You be feared