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Devarim. Timeless Torah; Timely Torah

This week we start a new book of Torah – Devarim – Moses’ final speech. What did Moshe set out to communicate? The Rabbis iddentified Devarim as “Mishneh Torah” – Deutero (second) Nomos (law) – as if to say that here Moses reviewed or repeated the law for the Jewish people. But every review has a purpose. Why do we repeat things?

Here is the introduction to the speech. We will offer two approaches to these lines, which offer surprisingly contrasting readings:

It was in the fortieth year, on the first day of the eleventh month, that Moses addressed the Israelites in accordance with the instructions that the Lord had given him for them, after he had defeated Sihon king of the Amorites, who dwelt in Heshbon, and King Og of Bashan, who dwelt at Ashtaroth [and] Edrei. On the other side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses undertook to expound this Teaching.

Reading 1: Sifrei. Repetition for Memory, Accuracy

Moses undertook to expound this Teaching (lit. Torah): Moses said to them, I am close to death. Whoever heard a verse from me and forgot it, come and study it accurately; If you heard a “parasha” and forgot it, come and hear it and commit it to memory. (Sifrei)

For the Sifrei, Deuteronomy is about reviewing laws that have been forgotten, texts that have been remembered inaccurately. Students are invited to check in with Moshe and ask all their questions. In a few months, the great lawgiver will be gone, and now is the time to ensure that the text of the Torah will be immaculate, flawless, now is the time to canonize, to remove any errors, to ensure a precise textual formulation of Torah and a perfect process of transmission.

In this understanding, Moshe is reviewing, repeating the Torah to ensure its accuracy. The Torah is the fundamental sources of divine law. God revealed His will at Sinai, but after that "it is not in the heavens." and man is entrusted with the preservation and interpretation of Torah. As such, this fundamental source of teaching and truth must be carefully preserved. Mishneh Torah, the review of the law, ensures that the laws will remain intact, pristine, even after Moshe's death.

The reading of the Sifrei supports the Rabbinic designation of Devarim as “a review of the law”. But there are two problems with this: 1. Most of Deuteronomy is not legal in nature, but educational, offering guidance, highlighting pitfalls, words of encouragement and so forth. In fact, our parsha is one long history lesson. 2. Many areas of law are not reviewed; chief among them are the laws of the Tabernacle. Why are some laws repeated and not others? And often we find differences, not repetition when we compare the laws of Deuteronomy to earlier books of the Torah; even the Ten Commandments have a different text in Devarim from the text in Exodus. If the goal was accuracy, we would be looking for a more effective implementation!

Reading 2. Rashi. Repetition as Translation, Relevance

Moses undertook to expound this Teaching (lit. Torah): In seventy languages (Rashi)

“This is a very strange interpretation. The Jewish people certainly did not speak seventy languages; and even if they did, what would be the purpose if translating it into different languages?

Rashi comes to express an important point. Seventy languages express a multiplicity of cultures. Moses is asserting that the Torah has what to say to every culture. In the course of history, many ethnicities, religions and societies have risen. Each civilization challenged or contested Judaism on this point or that. And Judaism offered its response to each in a fresh and novel manner. Moses was stating that Torah has a response to each and every culture.

… Sefer Devarim opens with a long introduction… as explained by Rashbam to designate the precise place and time that Moses gave his speech (fortieth year, on the first day of the eleventh month) … and then the specific events that framed the speech (“after the defeat of Sihon king of the Amorites etc.) Why is this necessary? What difference if Moses spoke on the 1st of Shevat or the 1st of the month of Adar?

The Torah wanted to drive home that Moses’ words were not detached neither from the place they were spoken nor from the historical context. Torah has a message for each generation. Moses ensured that his words were relevant to the period in question.” (Rabbi Yehuda Amital. 1996)

Please Discuss:

  • Following the Sifrei, why might there be the need to review the law as Moses’ death approached? What will happen if the Torah is remembered and transmitted inaccurately?

  • But Rav Amital is suggesting that the Torah has a message for each age, each culture. Is it possible that the Torah has different meanings for different times and places?

  • If we have one Torah (that cannot be forgotten!) does that Torah remain the same? If it remains the same, then how does it remain fresh and relevant?

  • What is a point in which the Torah is particularly relevant today?

  • What is a point in which the Torah clashes with today’s culture and the Torah might need to speak in a 21st Century dialect?

Shabbat Shalom!

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