Sermons and Parsha'iot      Parshat Devarim: Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22

    Summary

    This week’s parasha (as well as the fifth and final book of the Torah) begins with the phase “Eleh ha-devarim – These are the words.” In Devarim (or, to use its English name, Deuteronomy) Moses uses words to convey law as well as teachings that must be studied and pondered, with the intention of molding character, establishing virtues, and making goodness and holiness habitual. Our sages called Deuteronomy the Mishneh Torah – the “repeated Teaching” – because many of its laws are similar to those found in the other four books. However, Deuteronomy’s emphasis is quite different: It focuses on opposing the idolatrous practices that had become quite common by the 7th century B.C.E; and it emphasizes the importance of a centralized Temple in Jerusalem. (Before that time our ancestors used to offer their sacrifices at local shrines, usually located on hilltops.) The book became the impetus for a major religious reform initiated by King Josiah in 622 B.C.E called the “Deuteronomic Reform.”

    The book of Deuteronomy is basically three separate sermons delivered by Moses to the people just before he died. (According to Jewish tradition, the three speeches took 36 days to deliver – beginning on the first of Shevat and ending on the sixth of Adar!) These sermons stress God’s special relationship with the Israelites. The people are reminded that they are not more virtuous than the other nations of earth; it is only through their loyalty to the Torah that their unique role in  history will come about. Accordingly, the first of Moses’ speeches begins with a recapitulation of some of the major events which happened to the people during their forty years of wandering in the wilderness. Even though God had been watching over them, they had repeatedly been unfaithful. Although his audience is the generation born in freedom in the wilderness, Moses speaks to them as though they themselves had committed the sins and expressed the doubts for which their parents had been condemned to perish in the desert. Moses uses this history lesson to remind them that a lack of trust in God and a failure to obey God’s commandments will result in calamity; but that faith and obedience will lead to victory. Moses’ words blur time and history. By erasing generational boundaries, they warn us that children are indeed the recipients of their parents’ legacies.

    But Moses does not dwell only upon the people’s shortcomings. He is proud of their enlarged numbers and publicly prays that God will increase them a thousand-fold. Even as he rebukes the Israelites, he uses words to encourage them. Thus, he reminds Israel how she had recently defeated Sihon and Og, kings of Heshbon and Bashan. The obvious conclusion: God is a warrior who does  battle on Israel’s behalf. With God’s help, they will succeed in conquering Canaan as valiantly as they took the lands east of the Jordan. 

    Commentary

    • This week’s text opens with the words “You shall not be partial in judgment; hear out low and high alike.” The Talmudic sage Resh Lakish offers an explanation of this part of the text: “Let a lawsuit involving a mereperutah (a very small amount) be as important to you as one involving a hundred maneh (a very large amount).” In Mekhilta (Exodus 23,6) the midrash provides additional explanations of this phrase: low refers to a person who is disreputable and high refers to a decent person. Another suggestion is that “low” refers to a person who is poor in good mitzvot, while a “high” person is one who has done many mitzvot.

      In the JPS Torah Commentary on Deuteronomy, Jeffrey Tigay has pointed out that the courts will always hear the claims of the powerful, but not necessarily those of the weak. Therefore, “giving a hearing to the low as well as the high” means creating structures to allow the lowly to bring their lawsuits to the court. In particular, if someone seeking justice has to pay a fee to the court just to get a hearing, this might be difficult for a poor person to afford justice.
      At one time during the Depression, New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia (1933-1945) served as a night-court judge. One night a woman appeared before him who had stolen food to feed her children. La Guardia judged the case as follows saying to the woman: “I fine you $10.00 for stealing, and I fine everyone else in this courtroom, myself included, fifty cents each for living in a city where a woman is forced to steal to feed her children.” (from Jewish Wisdom by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, p.399) 

    • There are several instances where this parasha contradicts material recounted elsewhere in the Torah. How can we understand these contradictions? Tradition teaches that material does not appear twice in the Torah for the sake of repetition. Thus, the subtle differences between the plain meaning of two passages point to a wealth of spiritual lessons that lie beneath the surface of text. (This insight is the basis of midrash.) Another way to reconcile the contradictions is to accept the idea of multiple authors of the biblical text, each reflecting his own time and place in history while writing down the events recorded in the Bible. For her part, Nehamah Leibowitz suggests that in Deuteronomy, Moses was working as an interpreter of the events that had previously occurred in the biblical text. In the previous books, Moses had been an historian, but now – at the end of  his life – he wanted the people to learn the lesson of their previous mistakes.

      Have you ever had an argument with a friend or a family member? When it came time to tell someone what happened, did you each have a different version of the same story? How does this relate to the seeming contradictions in the Torah? Do mood changes affect you recall an event? If the same thing happened to a friend and to a stranger, would you be likely to describe the events in the same way, with the same words? 

    Some Thoughts and Questions

    1. In Deuteronomy Rabbah 1:6 the midrash describes the words of Torah as follows: “Just as the honey of the bee is sweet and its sting sharp, so too, are the words of the Torah.” From your own experience with and study of Torah, when have its words been sweet and when have they stung? 

    2. Moses is retelling our people’s history. They are again standing at the threshold of the Promised Land. They have been there once before. What happened the first time? Why would Moses want to remind the people of what happened? What lessons did he want them to learn?

      Have you ever been in the situation where you tried to do something but failed? Did the situation present itself again? If it did: What did you learn from your first try? Were you successful the second (or third or fourth) time? What did you learn from each try? What lessons did you learn which changed how you approached the situation? What made you ultimately successful? On what occasions have you looked back on an incident, thinking about it, almost obsessing about it, wishing that you had said/done something other than what actually happened? When you re-tell the story, how do you tell it? 

    3. One unusual feature of Deuteronomy is its depiction of Moses as a stirring orator. Remember that back in Exodus 4:10, when God chose him at the burning bush to lead the Israelites to freedom, Moses demurred on the grounds that he was not a man of words. What subsequent moments do you think most influenced him to now be a really fine public speaker?