D’varim is Hebrew for words … Torah demonstrates the real power of the words used by Moses as he delivers his discourses to the Israelites before they enter the Promised Land.
This week we start a new book of Torah – D’varim/Deuteronomy. As with the other books of Torah, the title of the book tells us a lot about the content.
The Hebrew word, D’varim, translates as “words.” “These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan.” (Deut. 1:1) But, it’s more that just “words.” Words can have power when arranged in the right way. They can bring people together, direct their actions, and help create a distinct way of thought. These are the goals of Moses as he addresses the Israelites before they enter the Promised Land.
The English, Deuteronomy, is a Greek work meaning “second law”… This book is actually a second telling – or retelling – of the previous books.
The words of Moses, as presented in Deuteronomy, are divided into three major discourses.
- The first, or introductory words, begin in this week’s parsha and tell of God’s relationship to the Israelites (Deut. 1:1 to 4:43)
- The second discourse retells the laws and rituals presented in the previous books of Torah (Deut. 4:44 to 11:25)
- The third discourse or final appeal is basically a farewell address by Moses. (11 1:26 to 28:69)
- A brief epilogue describing the death of Moses concludes the book (Deut. 34:1 to 12). (Gunther Plaut, The Torah – A Modern Commentary, Introducing Deuteronomy, p. 1141)
At the very beginning of the book of Deuteronomy we note a major difference between this and prior parshot. The words “The Eternal One spoke to Moses…..” do not appear. For the first time, this parsha contain the words and thoughts of Moses. Yes, these are not a repetition of God’s words, but the words – or the thoughts – of Moses.
The content is key …. This opening discourse of Moses could have gone in many directions. Moses could have praised God and been thankful for arriving at this place…. He could have thanked the people for the work that got them to this place …. He could have stated his agenda for the people after they enter the land….. Instead, Moses looked to the past and retells the history concentrating on where the Israelites made bad decisions.
Last year on the URJ website, ReformJuaism.org, Rabbis Audrey Korotkin, (Temple Beth Israel, Altoona Pennsylvania) and Geoffrey Dennis (Congregation Kol Ami, Flower Mound, Texas) presented three reasons why the content chosen by Moses was correct.
First, the article points out that Nachmanides, the thirteenth century Spanish Sage, noted that through this repetition of history Moses, adds clarity and explanation” to make sure that the new generation who may not remember this history know the actual facts… just as the past generation lived through this time.
Rabbi Dennis adds two other factors. First, history is an important teacher. The new generation should learn what was done correctly and what was done in error. With this knowledge, it is hoped that correct procedures will be continued and the mistakes of the past will not be repeated.
The article continues by pointing the idea that “the second lesson is to be found in the revisions that have occurred between Exodus and Deuteronomy. Moses is already showing us the Jewish way of reading the sacred word – through interpretation. The “word” (davar, this is Torah) is not inert, nor is it immutable. It is instead, in dialogue with those who read it, apply it, and live it. The Torah changes meaning as we use it. What was seemingly self-evident to the Israelites forty years earlier reveals new, different implications now. So it was for Moses, so it is for us. We are most authentic Jewishly when we read the Torah in the light of the here and now, seeking its application in the context of our own needs.” (ReformJewish. Org http://www.reformjudaism.org/learning/torah-study/dvarim/moses-and-twice-told-tale )
For all of these reasons, the Torah is not read once and put aside like most books. Torah is read and reread every year. And each time the contents still seem fresh … and often even seem to contain ideas that seem new to the reader. This is why Torah is always looked upon as a “living document.”