DEVARIM (Deuteronomy 1:1 – 3:22)

by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

“See, I place this land at your disposal. Go, take possession of the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to assign to them and to their heirs after them” (Deut. 1:8).

The word “Torah” simply means “instruction.” Its history of the ancient Israelites teaches us how they grew into a nation, how, as a people, after 400 years of enslavement in Egypt, they made a covenant with God to follow the Ten Commandments; how, deep in the desert, they developed a purity code to augment the Commandments; and, finally, how – in accordance with God’s directions and considerable loss of life — they took possession of the Holy Land. Through the example of the early Jews, we learn how to govern ourselves and our nations. Circumstances change, but human nature doesn’t. Amazingly, it makes good sense today, thousands of years later.

The Torah contains five books (the Greeks call it “the Pentateuch” in the first translation of the Hebrew Bible into a foreign language, other than Aramaic). The Hebrew Bible itself contains three sections: the Torah (the first five books), the Prophets (which includes the writings of the former and latter prophets and the 12 minor prophets), and Writings (which includes Psalms, Proverbs, and other well-known biblical books).

But today let’s talk about the Torah and its familiar five books:

The Book of Genesis not only describes the process of Creation, it is also about the development of human relations. As individuals multiply (according to the first command ever given) and form families, the Torah also teaches how we should treat or not treat one another.

Exodus is about the development of a nation, as first the Jews seek freedom from tyranny in Egypt, and then, as a covenanted yet still tribal people, learn to work together collectively towards a common goal – to travel through the wilderness toward the Promised Land.

Leviticus, said to have been written by the priests, is about the development of a holiness code. This is how a covenanted people must live, as individuals and as a nation, in order to be worthy of the Holy Land.

Numbers is a very practical book. It assesses the strength and determination of the Israelites gathered in the desert – and their worthiness – to enter the Promised Land and, in conquering it, to make it a holy land.

Deuteronomy is a different kettle of fish. On one level it represents the words of Moses addressing all of Israel: It is thus the long monologue of a courageous leader who understands his time is done, and that he must hand over leadership to a proven younger man (Joshua, son of Nun), who belongs to the next generation, which has grown up in freedom. “Imbue him with strength, for he shall allot it to Israel” (Deut. 1: 38).  

On another level, it is the summary of the four previous books, of all that has gone before. If you can only read one book of the Torah, read Deuteronomy – that’s the common wisdom. You might, however, find it a little drier in its rendition than the previous chapters. It’s a history, after all.

“Deuteronomy occupies a unique position in the Hebrew Bible and in the history of biblical scholarship,” writes biblical scholar William W. Hallo. “More nearly than any other biblical book, it can lay claim to having been a book in its own right before it was incorporated into the Bible”. In an accompanying article, Rabbi Gunther Plaut writes that it is a combination of Homily, Cult Libretto, Law Book, and History.

Who wrote Deuteronomy? This question has been a source of speculation for centuries. “The question,” writes my favorite medieval commentator, Abarbanel (who always asks a lot of questions), “is whether this book is from heaven like the first four books, or whether – since it is all in Moses’ voice – these are the words of Moses and not of God.” Was Moses the author, as some contend? If so, why does the last verse announce his death? Obviously, Moses couldn’t do that! Of course, the announcement of his death could have been tacked on to a previous account at a later date. Other authorities think that Deuteronomy was written much later than the earlier books. Still others think that what we call Deuteronomy is the missing scroll that good King Josiah “discovered” as the Temple was being repaired (ca. 640 BCE), the scroll that caused him to henceforth centralize religious ritual at the Temple in Jerusalem (at least that was the reason given at the time). No more rites (with their pagan potential) were to be held at spurious altars outside of the Holy City. All sacrifices henceforth had to take place in Jerusalem.