We are entering the fifth and final book of the Torah this week, Devarim! It is a book also named the ‘Mishneh Torah.’ (Sanhedrin 21b Rashi)
The book features speeches of rebuke by Moshe, just five weeks prior to his death and the book recaps the journeys in the wilderness and features more than seventy new mitzvot!!
Parshat Devarim starts off by relating how Moshe gathered all the people together and started off his rebuke to them. He spoke to the entire nation (Devarim 1:1), according to some opinions in seventy different languages (Rashi), mainly rebuking them for the sins that happened in their time in the wilderness.
Moshe saw that this was the perfect time to rebuke them so that when they would enter the land under Joshua, they would know not to sin. As several times under Moshe's leadership they had transgressed.
Also as Moshe was about to pass away, he saw it as the opportune time to give them rebuke, since taking rebuke from a man that is about to die is much easier than when they would constantly see him much after. After this rebuke, they took his words to heart and repented for the sins of their fathers. We see the same when Yaakov rebuked his sons; Reuven, Shimon and Levi before he passed away (Bereishit 49:3-7).
Moshe rebuked the Jews out of love; we learn from his loving rebuke that one would take rebuke much more to heart when the person rebuking is doing it for the love of the other person and not just so that he can make the other person feel bad. One should only rebuke another when they are calm and not angry. In fact we learn from the Talmud that an individual that gets angry a lot usually does not live a full life (Pesachim 113b).
Many of the people listening to this rebuke, were just children at the time of the opening years in the wilderness, however they did also unfortunately take part or witness transgressions taking place at the beginning period and in the last year in the desert, including the transgression with the Moabite women.
Moshe started off reproving the children of Israel for having delayed entry in to the land, He miraculously made a trip to Kadesh Barnea three days as opposed to a potential ten days.
In the middle of the rebuke, Moshe paused and expressed his love by giving a beautiful and fruitful blessing before continuing the rebuke (Devarim 1:11).
Moshe then related his disappointment in the Jews, just before the giving of the Torah, when they requested Judges and teachers as opposed to hearing the Torah directly from Moshe’s mouth, this we learned in Parshat Yitro (Shemot 18:13-26).
Moshe then related how he appointed the judges and stated what a judge needs to attribute, including; the man needs to be learned in Torah and wise, he must be modest, G-d fearing, not attach too much importance to physical possessions and desires, must seek truth and justice, must be well liked and the potential judge must have a good reputation (Menachot 65a).
Moshe then told off the children of Israel about the sin of the spies, which we learned about in Parshat Shelach. He expressed his anguish that they believed the spies slanderous report and related how it extended their journey in the wilderness to forty years (Bamidbar 14:34).
Moshe relates the incident in Ma’afilim, which we also lean in Parshat Shelach (Devarim 1:44); the Jews attempted to attack the Emorim against G-d’s wishes and lost their lives as the Emorim killed them.
Next up, Hashem forbade the Jews to attack three nations, they were, Sair, Ammon and Moav. Sair is another name for Edom (Devarim 2:1-19).
The Jews were not allowed to attack them and invade their land as they were due a large reward from Hashem as they kept the Mitzvah of honoring their fathers very well, we learn in Parshat Toldot how Eisav went to lengths to honor Yitzchak (Bereishit 25:28).
The Jews were also not allowed to invade and attack the Ammonites and Moabites for several reasons. Lot was the father of both Moav and Ammon, he actually guarded a secret of Abraham and Sarah, when he did not relate to Pharaoh that Abraham was married to Sarah and played along with the story that they were brother and sister, in turn by keeping quiet he saved the life of Abraham (Bereishit 12:12).
Moshe then related the conquest of the giant Sichon and his army. Before relating how he overcame the giant Og and conquered his kingdom, all under the providence of Hashem!! This we also learned in Parshat Chukat (Bamidbar 21:21-35). Og was such a giant, the Talmud relates us that his thigh bone alone was absolutly enormous (Nidah 24b)!
Moshe then related the divisions of the East bank Jordan and his admonition of the two and half tribes, which we learned about in Parshat Matot (Bamidbar 32:1-15).
Moshe continues his rebuke but it progresses into next weeks reading, so watch this space to find out what else he said.
Moshe gives reproof to the Jewish people in the book of Devarim, including the following:
"And you complained in your tents, and you said, because the Almighty hated us He took us out of Egypt to hand us over to Amorites to destroy us."
Is it truly possible that the Israelites thought that the Almighty hated them?
Rashi, the great commentator, elucidates this verse and gives us a profound insight into human nature. Says Rashi, that the Almighty really loved the Israelites, but because they felt hatred towards Him, they mistakenly felt that He hated them. As people say, "What you feel about someone else, you assume he feels about you."
There is a strong tendency for people to project their own feelings towards others. If you constantly think that other people should not be trusted, it could show that you feel that others should not really trust you. If you always think that others disapprove of you, it indicates that you don't approve of others - or perhaps yourself.
To use this positively, if you feel love and compassion for others, you will assume others feel that way towards you. Not only that, but your behavior and feelings will beget the same from the people you interact with. Try smiling at another person. You'll feel better towards him and he'll be more positive towards you!
Moshe summarizes and recaps the 40 years of the Jews’ wandering in the desert. He begins with the giving of the Torah; he recounts the establishment of the judicial system and the Sanhedrin; he retells the story of the meraglim who spied out the land. Then Moshe jumps forward 38 years to retell of the Israelites’ encounters with Moav, Eisav and Amon, and the conquest of the trans-Jordan, including how the 2 ½ tribes stay on the east side, and the transition to Yehoshua’s leadership as the people get ready to enter the land.
But why is this parsha, and even the entire book, called “Devarim”, which we usually translate as words? Devarim can mean other things besides words: it can also mean “basic things or objects”, or in a more esoteric sense, “abstract things or matters”. It’s fairly obvious why “matters”, or “issues of consequence” would be important to us. But why are words, per se, so important? This has been discussed at great length for the past two thousand years, since our people are known around the world as a people who love words!
Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch has an interesting approach to this question of the words: he says that for the Israelites about to enter the land, the words of Moshe in this book, summarize for the people what their immediate ancestors have been through. Remember that those listening are not the ones who received the torah 40 years earlier at Sinai, but rather their children and grandchildren. Moshe’s words serve as a direct contrast to the physical being of Moshe, as he prepares to die, and the physical experience of Sinai, which these Israelites did not themselves experience. Once the ”real time” events of revelation are over and in the past, even though that “past” is recent enough so that the Israelites could have heard about it from first-hand witnesses, the words and the description are all that remain to inspire them. The davar or “matter” of the Israelites’ covenant with G-d still endures, but only through the words that connect them to the story. In a sense, we are no different from that generation that was about to enter the land: like them, we only know of our history through the telling of it, through the words of Moshe. Rav Hirsh puts it more poetically when he says,
“With Moshe’s death, all of his physical personality will depart. Only a description….of the place where the people heard the last of his faithful words, will be handed down to posterity so that, if some day a late descendent of the Children of Israel will come to this place, it may perhaps echo for him these words and inspire him to follow them faithfully…” (Rav S.R. Hirsch 1:1)
Rabbi Ismar Schorsch has written a bit differently about the derivation and importance of the word “devarim”. He explains that devarim may come not from davar, but rather from the word “devir”. In the first temple, the devir was the Holy of Holies, as referred to in Melachim I (8:6):
“The Priests brought the Ark of the Lord’s covenant to its place ….in the Devir (or shrine) of the house, in the Holy of Holies”. From here the word devir came to mean “oracle”, or the place or shrine from which G-d spoke, and then it was just a short leap by the rabbinic generation to expand the meaning of devir from an oracle or holy word, to a book. In the Talmud we read a story of Rav from the early third century in Babylonia, who was puzzled by the ancient Persians’ use of the word Devir for a book. He found an isolated biblical verse that seemed to explain this: in the first perek of Shoftim (1:11), we read that the name of a place called Devir, near Hevron, was formerly called “Kiryat sefer”. So, now we have the connection between devir or davar and sefer or book. The biblical word devir, originally only connected to the physical architecture of the temple, became the much more loaded rabbinic term that would lead us forward for the subsequent two thousand years and beyond: the book!
Thus we have the much-noted fact that, in spite of the destruction of the temple, Judaism itself was not destroyed, as one would expect of a people so invested in the temple cult and the sacrificial system. Rather, Judaism survived and thrived with a whole new emphasis: the book. As Rabbi Schorsch puts it, “Judaism survived because it replaced its cult with a canon.”
Finally, what is the connection between this parsha and Tisha B’Av, which will occur and always occurs, in the week following parshat devarim? The haftarah we heard today lends the other name to this week, Shabbat Chazon. The chazon or vision of Isaiah in today’s haftarah contrasts dramatically with the emphasis on words in the parsha. On one level, the destruction of the temple was said to be because of the sinat chinam of the Israelites, which is commonly understood as lashon hara, or evil speech. So, words or devarim are intimately connected with the destruction we will commemorate this coming week.
But on another level, the words of devarim are contrasted to the vision of Isaiah and in this version, the words don’t come out on the short end of the stick at all: Devarim’s approach to G-d is less about vision or spectacle, and more about language: it is more rooted in the intellect, rather than in the senses. In other books of the Torah, for example, in sefer shemot, the vision is the central theme. The people see miracles performed on their behalf again and again. The sight of the cloud and fire of G-d guiding them toward the Red Sea, and the senses of taste and smell as they offer their pesach sacrifice, the terrifying sound of the thunder at Sinai, all these make the Israelites in the book of shemot physically aware, with their vision and all of their senses, of G-d’s presence. The ten plagues are perhaps the best example of this visible physicality of G-d for the Jewish people.
But in the book of Devarim, those sights, sounds, smells and tastes are all in the past and the words or the re-telling of the story is what the Israelites at this point have left. This is lucky for us, because we also weren’t around to see the spectacle, with the sense of wonder and feeling of “being there” that the original Israelites felt. We often feel so far removed from our ancestors in the stories told in the Torah, as if we are the only ones who have to cultivate our imaginations to feel close to God. But today’s parsha reminds us that we are not the first ones to be without the physical aspect of God: we have the original example of our ancestors, the Israelites who are about to cross over the Jordan into the land of Israel. They had to listen to Moshe’s words in order to understand the story, and so do we. Like the Israelites about to cross into the land, we listen to Moshe as he recounts our dramatic history and describes our relationship with God, the words, the devarim that convey that story, and we can be inspired by them.
This Shabbat is known as Shabbat Hazon, which is defined as the "Sabbath of Vision," and refers to Isaiah's vision of the destruction of the Temple, which is the Haftarah reading for this week (Isaiah 1:1-27)