D’var Torah on Parashat Devarim

This morning we begin the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy). The first portion of the book, also called Devarim, begins with Moshe’s first address to the Israelites in the 40th year after the exodus from Egypt, while the people are preparing to cross the Jordan and begin the conquest. Since Moshe will not be joining them, he uses five addresses and poems to prepare them for the next stage. My friend Haim once called this book Five Easy Speeches, but there is little that is easy about the lectures Moshe delivers here. The book is also called  Mishneh Torah (not to be confused with Maimonides’ law code of the same name), which means repetition of the Torah, since many of the stories and laws given in the four preceding books are given here, in addition to a lot of new law. It is from the alternate name of the book, Mishneh Torah, where the English name Deuteronomy is derived, Deuteronomy meaning “second law.”

After first locating this first speech in time and place, Moshe reminds the people that at Horev (that is, Mt. Sinai), G-d told the people to go take possession of the land promised to their ancestors. It is only now, 40 years later, that a new generation is prepared to do so. Moshe seems to alternate between kvetching about how bad their parents’ generation made it for him and encouraging this people to go and reach their destiny.  He then delivers a history lesson on how they got here.

It is interesting in Chapter 1, verse 22 that we have a fairly different version of the story of the spies from parashat Shelach Lecha in the book of Numbers. There, Moshe sends out 12 spies on G-d’s bidding and apparently for Moshe’s sake, while here he says “all of you came to me and said, ‘let us send men ahead to reconnoiter the land for us,’ etc. Here, the report of the spies is somewhat softened or glossed over, with more of the blame going to the people for not being brave enough, for complaining, and for having too little faith in G-d. Only Calev is here mentioned as the exception, being the only man of that generation, other than Joshua, to enter the Land; their sin had brought sin upon Moshe as well, precluding him from entering the Land as well – no allusion here to the striking-the-rock incident.

The travelogue continues through the conquest of Kings Sihon and Og, and the encouragement of Joshua as the next leader to not fear Canaanites when he leads the people.

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