Jewish Life Torah Portion

Torah Portion – Devarim

By Shlomo Riskin

There are two important issues which must be studied when approaching this week’s Torah portion, the first theological and the second textual. 

The theological question strikes us from the moment we open this fifth book of the Bible: Moses is speaking with his voice to the people of Israel. Each of the other four biblical books is written in the third person — in God’s voice, as it were — recording the history, narrating the drama and commanding the laws. This fifth book is written in the first person. What does this signify?

The 15-century Spanish biblical interpreter and disciple of Maimonides, Don Isaac Abarbanel, concludes that whereas the first four books of the Bible are God’s words written down by Moses, this fifth book of the Bible contains Moses’ words, which God commanded the prophet to write down. In this manner, Deuteronomy has equal sanctity with the rest of the five books, (Abarbanel, Introduction to Deuteronomy).

Perhaps the Abarbanel is agreeing with a provocative interpretation of the verse, “Moses will speak, and the Lord will answer him with a voice” (Ex. 19:19), which I once heard in the name of the Kotzker Rebbe, who asked: “What is the difference whether God speaks and Moses answers Amen, or Moses speaks and God answers Amen?!” 

The second issue is textual. The book of Deuteronomy is Moses’ long farewell speech. Moses feels compelled to provide personal reflections on the significance of the commandments as well as his spin on many of the most tragic desert events.

From the very beginning of Moses’ monologue, he cites God’s invitation to the Israelites to conquer the Land of Israel. This would be the perfect introduction to a retelling of the Sin of the Scouts whose evil report dissuaded the Israelites from attempting the conquest. Indeed, he does begin to recount, “But you all drew near to me and said, ‘Let us send out men before us, and let them scout out the land and report to us on the matter…’” (Deut. 1:22). But this retelling comes 14 verses after God’s initial invitation and these verses are filled with what appears to be recriminations against a nation which Moses “is not able to carry [bear] alone” (1: 9). Only after this excursus from the topic at hand does Moses discuss the failed reconnaissance mission. Why the excursus? From God’s initial approach to Moses at the burning bush, Moses was a reluctant leader. The reason was clear: Moses called himself “heavy of speech” – meaning Moses was not given to “light banter”; he was so immersed in the “heavy” issues, that he had neither the patience nor the interest to convince an ungrateful and stiff-necked people to trust in God and conquer the Promised Land. Moses spent so much time in the companionship of the Divine that he lost the will – and ability – to consort with regular humanity. Moses yearned to speak to God, to convey the “heavy talk of God’s commandments, he had neither the time nor the will for small-talk.

Moses knew himself. The verses leading up to the Sin of the Scouts are hardly an excuse. They explain his failure to give proper direction to the delegation of tribal princes, his inability to censure their report, his unwillingness to convince them of the critical significance of the conquest of the land. He could not bear the the grumblings of a nation which was too removed from God to be able to follow Him blindly as Moses was more than willing to do!

Back to theology. Maimonides explains that even at Mount Sinai, the entire nation only heard a sound emanating from the Divine, a Kol; each individual understood that sound in accordance with his specific and individual spiritual standing, while Moses was the only one able to “divine” the precise will of God within that sound – the words of the Ten Commandments (Guide to the Perplexed, II:32–33). Moses internalized the will of God and thereby produced the words of the four books of the Bible. God’s words were internalized and written by Moses, the greatest prophet of all. Moses communicated with God. Moses may not always have spoken successfully to his own generation; but he did write, for us and for Jewish eternity.

But Moses also had a legacy to leave and an interpretation to give. In the book of Deuteronomy, he spoke to his people, telling them not God’s words but his own, Moses’s own interpretation of the events and the commandments:  God commanded him to write down the words of this book as well for all eternity. God was granting the divine imprimatur of Torah to Moses’ book of Deuteronomy
– and making it His (God’s) book as well. Moses spoke and God answered Amen.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.

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