Loving the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) has been a struggle for me.
The grammar is weird. Some verbs have unwieldy forms I’ve never see elsewhere. The narrator’s voice keeps shifting — it is and then it isn’t Moses.
Some of the narratives seem inconsistent with earlier books. In Devarim, Moses blames people for his failures. Describes himself as a peace activist. Brags about how he shares his authority.
Likely, I’ve been made cynical by the theory that King Josiah’s scribes wrote it. A theory suggested by events in II Kings 22. Josiah wanted to bolster his authority over Israelite cultural life. So, he commissioned scribes to fabricate an ancient scroll. A scroll that would look Mosaic, but emphasize the centrality of the capital city, Jerusalem, in matters of law and worship.
So, I’ve always felt Devarim was badly edited, sloppily researched, and written the night before it was due.
This year, however, I’ve changed my mind. Added another perspective. Fallen in love.
Devarim is also a work of poetry. A selectively compiled “greatest hits of Torah.”
There’s a little Bereisheet (Genesis), a reverse rehearsal of creation’s steps. Don’t represent the Divine in the image of male or female. Or in the image of a land animal. Or a flying animal. Or a fish from the sea. Don’t look at sun, moon and stars thinking you should worship them. (Deuteronomy 4; Genesis 1)
Shemot (Exodus) is summarized in five easy sentences. My ancestors came to Egypt, growing into a great nation. The Egyptians oppressed us and assigned us hard work. We called out to God, who heard us and saw us. God took us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with signs and wonders. And brought us to a land flowing with milk and honey. (Deuteronomy 26; Exodus 1-15)
Holy behaviours taught in Vayikra (Leviticus) are reinforced. Don’t oppress the powerless. Be impartial in judgment. Set aside part of your harvest for the poor. (Deuteronomy 24; Leviticus 19, 23)
Wilderness adventures from Bamidbar (Numbers) are showcased. God led you through the wilderness, with its fiery serpents and parched waterless land, bringing forth water from the rock. (Deuteronomy 8; Numbers 20-21)
If I were going to present the best of Torah in 150 words, I just might use these lovely passages as a guide.
How would you sketch the Torah’s story in just a few words? Which evocative phrases would you choose?
Ambiguity of Time (5773/2013)
The book of Devarim reads like Moshe’s ethical will: in a long speech, he recounts to the Israelites the adventures they shared, and his vision for their future nation. The words are attributed to Moshe himself, not to God. And some of the events of the wilderness years are retold with slightly different storylines.
Devarim begins with a long, detailed sentence locating the speech in time and place. Some modern Biblical scholars see this opening sentence as an attempt to legitimate the attribution of the speech to Moshe, a kind of subtle expression of anxiety by the book’s later author. Some more traditional scholars see it as emphasizing Moshe’s autonomy in composing his own thoughts, a celebration of a powerful style of prophecy in which a spiritual teacher interprets God’s teaching through the reflective lens of life experience.
I see it as a reminder of the ambiguity of time. Philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty teaches: as our lives unfold in the present, we continuously project a new future and continuously re-interpret the past. Here, Moshe does that before our eyes. Sometimes the process is uplifting, leading Moshe to envision a utopian community; occasionally it is demoralizing, leading Moshe to chastise the Israelites for things they did not do.
The opening sentence reminds me that the process occurs at every specific moment in time. My own continuous accounting places me into a changing stream of memories, emotions, moods and plans. But I do find this a challenging backdrop to the flow of everyday tasks. Perhaps, then, Devarim’s opening sentence can remind me to set aside a specific time and place for this reflection. As a reflective spiritual practice, it can provide solid ground at the center of the stream.
What is a Vision? (5772/2012)
Traditionally, on Shabbat Chazon, we read the vision the prophet Isaiah sees concerning Judah and Jerusalem (Isaiah 1). Isaiah sees everyday events with spiritual vision, and describes a broken society, morally confused and spiritually empty. Two hundred years later, at the time of the Babylonian exile, some of Isaiah’s words were used in the book of Eichah-Lamentations, to describe the physical life of farmers left amid the parched ruins of Judah and Jerusalem. Thus we tend to read back into Isaiah’s words a literal, predictive vision of Judah’s future.
What, really, is chazon, vision? Is it a kind of spiritual insight, a new lens with which to see an existing reality, an understanding pointing to a clear course of action? Is it a literal glimpse into an inevitable future? Or into a possible future that awaits if we don’t find a better way?
Rambam says: a vision is “something terrible and fearful which the prophet feels while awake, as is distinctly stated by Daniel.” What a telling example! Daniel felt his visions in his body, and was sometimes literally shaken by them. But he did not take the content literally. His understood his visions as metaphors, allegories, and symbols – both of the spiritual state of the society where he lived, and of possible futures.
How then should we understand our own sudden disturbing reframes of our lives and times? Not as literal views of an inevitable outcome — no matter how certain they seem – but as metaphors that reveal new dimensions, or calls to reorient our ways of living. As Rambam says, you don’t have to be a prophet to experience the occasional vision.
Vision of the Piacetzner Rebbe (5767/2007)
On July 18, 1942, Shabbat Chazon, the Piacetzner Rebbe spoke in the Warsaw Ghetto about the difficulty of chazon, vision.
The Rebbe said: Only a few years ago, we would read about the destruction of Jerusalem. We were moved, we cried, we felt we knew the sufferings of our ancestors. Now we know how little we understood. Our sages taught that there are ten levels of prophecy, and that vision is the harshest of them all. Now we understand this teaching. Now we are actually seeing the suffering described by the prophet Isaiah. Our sage Ulla said, “Let the Messiah come, I will not see it!” Now we understand his meaning. Even our sages did not want to witness “the birth pangs of the Messiah” — the pain that precedes redemption. Our pain must be the birthing contractions of the Messiah.
Four days later the Nazis began the operation that came to be called the “Great Deportation” from the Warsaw Ghetto. Ninety percent of the ghetto’s population – 300,000 people – were rounded up and deported to the execution center at Treblinka. The ghetto’s remaining 30,000 residents organized for resistance. Ultimately, Nazi troops destroyed the ghetto and deported all survivors.
Had the Rebbe lived only five years longer, he would have lived to see the birth of the modern state of Israel. Perhaps he would have described himself as one of the six million midwives assisting in this terrible, troubled birth. Perhaps he would have wisely explained that the maturation of a nation is like that of an individual, fraught with ethical and logistical mistakes that must be corrected. Perhaps he would have inspired others with his steady, spiritual vision, and gifts of empathic language.
Seeking Peace (5766/2006)
“I sent emissaries … to Sichon king of Cheshbon with a peaceful message, saying, “We wish to pass through your land. We will travel along the main highway … buy the food we eat for cash, and … pay for the drinking water you give us.” (Devarim/Deuteronomy 2:26-28)
The Torah clearly sets out the obligation to seek peace before starting any military activity. If an army does not seek peace but just attacks the enemy, then the use of force in a war violates Jewish law. The Torah states:
“When you approach a city to do battle with it you should call to it in peace. … And if they do not make peace with you, you shall wage war with them and you may besiege them.” (Devarim/Deuteronomy 20:10)
What is peace? Peace studies scholars speak of “negative peace,” where open hostilities are on hold, but parties still disagree and the most powerful one holds sway. Scholars also speak of “positive peace,” where justice, fairness, and good civic process eliminate the need for violence.
Rabbi Moses Maimonides (Rambam), writing his Mishneh Torah code of Jewish Law in 10th century Egypt, favors positive peace. In his view, the Torah teaches that an Israelite leader should make ethical behavior part of the terms of the peace treaty. He believes that a country cannot be peaceful unless it is ethical. Thus he interprets the Torah’s words “call to it in peace” as meaning, “teach it how to be peaceful.”
How and Where? (5765/2005)
The Jewish calendar of sacred readings places Parshat Devarim on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av. On Tisha B’Av, the date commemorating the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, Megillat Eichah/ The Scroll of Lamentations is read.
In Devarim, Moshe begins to retell the story of the Israelites’ adventures in the wilderness. He begins the story by telling of his realization that he could not lead a nation without help and needed to appoint tribal leaders. “Eichah,” he says, “HOW can I alone carry your burdens and your quarrels?” (Devarim/Deuteronomy 1:12).
Megillat Eichah, describing Jerusalem after the destruction of the first Temple, begins with an exclamation. “Eichah – HOW can it be – the city that was full of people is now empty?” (Eichah/Lamentations 1:1)
In Gan Eden/the Garden of Eden, after Adam and Chavah had eaten from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, God calls to Adam. “Ayecah – WHERE ARE YOU?” (Bereisheet/Genesis 3:9). The Hebrew word ayecah and the Hebrew word eichah are spelled with exactly the same letters: aleph, yod, caf, hey.
Our sages teach that the second Temple was destroyed because of sin’at chinam – senseless hatred. Historical sources confirm this: the Jews of Jerusalem were so preoccupied with internal politics and civil war that they failed to join together against the Roman threat until the troops were at their gates.
Each time we ask eichah, HOW did something happen, we must also ask ourselves ayecah, WHERE ARE YOU in this situation? Perhaps we can learn from the example of our teacher Moshe, who asked himself Eichah? — and then concluded that he himself needed to change.
Inspired by Gitit Nahaliel-Rotberg and Rabbi Pinchas Winston