Parashat D’varim

By Doug Alpert

This week we commence reading the Book of Devarim (Deuteronomy). In our quest to understand Torah and apply it to our own existence we are naturally prone to see it through the lens of our own experience. Having admitted to this bias in my own interpretation as I study the text, I immediately go to a specific place in my experience, i.e., my place as a parent. At the risk of overstatement, there may not be a greater pedagogical tool than the Book of Devarim. This is particularly true for parents. If you, like me, are prone to skip to the end to see what happens, one of the great lessons for parents is embodied within the idea that arguably our greatest leader, Moshe Rabeinu, is prohibited by G-d from following his children, B’nai Yisrael into the Land of Israel. So, how much more true is it for us, as parents with our own children, in the pain and difficulty we feel in letting go and allowing our kids to own their lives and decisions. Wendy Mogul, a psychologist and educator comments in her book, The Blessings of a Skinned Knee, “your child is not your masterpiece. According to Jewish thought your child is not even truly yours . . . G-d has made everything available on loan . . . They are a precious loan, and each one has a unique path toward serving G-d. Our job [as parents] is to help them find out what it is.”

But, to truly understand the power of Jewish teaching contained in Devarim, the optimum place to start is with this week’s parashah, and more specifically at the very beginning of the parashah. “Eleh ha-D’varim – These are the words . . .” R. Gunther Plaut defines the word d’varim in a more broad sense as discourse, thereby referring to the entire book of D’varim and the discourse contained therein. Plaut characterizes this introductory section as a “matter-of-fact recital” of the history of our triumphs and tragedies while wandering in the desert; a “low-keyed historical review.”

In Rashi’s exegesis he credits greater meaning and import to “Eleh ha-d’varim,” noting that the use of the word denotes words of admonishment. Likewise with Nachmanides and Abravanel as elucidated in Nehama Leibowitz’s commentary, it is basically assumed that this initial section is intended as reproof to the new generation that was about to enter the Promised Land. Moses’ recapitulation of the prior generation who left Egypt is an important means of preparation for B’nai Yisrael to enter the Land of Israel, and there is nothing matter-of-fact about it.

First and foremost amongst the pedagogical dynamics at work here is that the teaching has its foundation in the strength of the relationship between Moshe Rabeinu and B’nai Yisrael. Like a parent to a child, the strength of the message being delivered is reliant upon the closeness of the relationship between the one who offers the teaching, and the recipient(s) of the lesson. Jeffrey Tigay comments that, unlike the previous books of the Torah, the speaker is Moses himself, and not an unnamed narrator.

Bereshit Rabbah (54:3) aptly comments that love without reproof is really not love at all. The admonishment commenced by Moshe Rabeinu in this week’s parashah is facilitated first by his love for his people; his children, B’nai Yisrael. However, he takes the vital next step in the relationship by using the moments in time when their behavior had gone astray, and, in consequence of that behavior, the wandering in the desert for forty years. Wendy Mogel aptly observes that there are rules for reproof because in Jewish tradition this activity is holy.

As important as what Moshe Rabeinu says is the method by which he imparts his lesson. We read in the parashah that he brought all of Yisrael together to hear the message at once. (D’varim 1:1) Rashi recognizes that Moses’ admonitions would be more difficult to refute when the entire community hears it together. Then, when Moses commences “elucidating this Torah,” Rashi explains that by elucidating, Moses explained it to B’nai Yisrael in seventy languages. (D’varim 1:5) By doing so Moses strives to approach each member of the community as unique, meeting each wherever s/he is, and insuring that s/he is not disenfranchised from the community.

This is a lesson continued from the beginning of Sh’mot when we/B’nai Yisrael came into Egypt by name and by number; as individuals and as a community. (Exodus 1:1-5) Whether it is as a community, a congregation, or a family of children, we must strive to see each member of the whole as a unique creation of G-d. At the same time we must strive to create a strong kehillah, a community committed to the needs of the other within each one’s community, congregation, or family.

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Doug Alpert is a rabbinical student at AJR.