Parasha Devarim - Deuteronomy 2:2 - 2:30

by Susan Landau-Chark



Today’s d’var is to honor the memory of my father, Cyril Green, Shlomo ben Yosef Ha Levi – Tomorrow evening will be his 41st  yahrzeit


My father was an avid reader – particularly of the quotes and sayings of famous people as well as of  political stories, and history - believing like George Santayana that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”


Parsha Devarim is the opening chapter of the last of the five books of the Torah. Before addressing today’s section I want to give a brief overview of this last book.


Deuteronomy/Devarim is considered to be the book of law re-discovered under Josiah’s kingship 2Kings 22:8 ...

And Hilkiah the high priest said unto Shaphan the scribe: 'I have found the book of the Law in the house of the LORD.' And Hilkiah delivered the book to Shaphan, and he read it.


After the book is read, King Josiah realizes that he, his predecessors and therefore the people also,  have not kept G-D’s commandments, and he hastens to carry out the religious reforms that will bring the people back into G-D’s favour. These include destroying all cultic relics other than those used to serve G-D; burning down all sanctuaries outside of the Temple, and once again celebrating the Passover festival.


Note these reforms took place after the reading of a written text; this illustrates that what is handed down orally can be easily corrupted.


For this reason a number of Biblical scholars consider Deuteronomy/Devarim to a) reflect a time of religious upheaval, and b) was written to provide support to King Josiah and his reforms.


Devarim is a recapitulation of all the events that have taken place in the desert during their 38 years of wandering - but it is much more than this - it is the one book where G-D is not actively present. What we are hearing are the words of G-D through Moses. In this book there are no pillars of smoke, and no visible signs of the divine presence. These are now part of the history. G-D in Devarim is a transcendent G-D; no longer physically present on earth, the emphasis now is that G-D dwells in Heaven.


In its entirety Devarim is Moses’ farewell speech to the people - it is a renewal of the covenant - some say it is the second covenant between the B’nai Yisro’el and G-D; it is history; and exhortations, it is rules and law; blessings and curses, speeches and poems


Devarim is clearly concerned with the establishment of the people as a cohesive unit that will live separate and apart from other nations and will follow the laws given by G-D as mediated through the Levites. Jeffrey Tigay, who wrote the JPS commentary on Devarim, noted that “no other of the books of the Torah demand such vehement campaigns to prevent the Israelites from worshipping other gods presenting executions and destruction [as the consequences of straying]”


By the completion of Moses’ song and his death, the people are ready to follow Joshua into the Promised Land. The previous generation has ceased to be, and this new generation  – hardened by their travels, and shaped by their years in the desert - are the embodiment of Moses’ instructions  – they are now one people, with one G-D, prepared to establish the one land, where once settled they will have one place of worship given by one teacher


I have been reading Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible by Karel Van der Toorn, his premise being that the Hebrew Bible is the creation and inspiration of the scribal culture of ancient Israel.


He uses Deuteronomy/Devarim as his entry point noting that Jeremiah had called the “teaching of yud-hay-vav-hay” the product “of the deceitful pen of scribes” (Jer 8:8) Jeremiah’s father was Hilkiah, the priest who initially “discovered” the book presented to Josiah. Some Biblical scholars have connected this “book” to Devarim. Jeremiah began prophesying in the 13th year of Josiah’s reign; it was in the 18th year of Josiah’s reign that the book was “found” – thus Jeremiah was part of Josiah’s retinue when the religious reforms were being carried out.


Van der Toorn’s speculations provide an alternate perspective for understanding Devarim

He lays out the evidence that there have been four editions of the book since King Josiah’s time. The core of Devarim - chapters 12-26 van der Toorn calls the covenant edition

By editions he is referring to the addition of specific chapters to the original core - van der Toorn has chosen to give the four disparate editions names: the covenant edition, the Torah edition, the history edition and the wisdom edition.


The covenant edition is also considered to be the “scroll of the covenant” found by Hilkiah. The Torah edition is identified as “sefer hatorah” as named in chapters 28-30 in Devarim, and is also called torat moshe in Joshua and in first and second Kings.


The Torah edition opens with the phrase


this is the Torah which Moses set before the children of Israel (Dt 4:44)


The Torah edition highlights the role of Moses, focussing on Moses as the prototype for a succession of prophets. The person who tried to avoid representing G-D before Pharaoh in Egypt now speaks lucidly, and eloquently to the people gathered before him.


Van der Toorn calls the fourth edition the wisdom edition - and he views this edition as being the last redaction - noting that the scribe responsible for this text was concerned with the “intellectual significance of the Jewish way of life based on the Torah” – this edition refers to the Law of Moses as tora and misva - teaching and commandment. He notes that chapters 4 and 30 affirm the superiority of the Jewish way of life and that this superiority is the result of wisdom


observe them faithfully for that will be proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples, who on hearing of all these laws will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people.” (Dt. 4:6)


The third edition, and the one I will focus on in my time remaining, van der Toorn calls the history edition. This edition is accounted for through the additions of chapters 1-3 as a prologue to the core text, and also the added chapters 27, and 31-34 at the end. This introduction, is believed to have been added during the Babylonian exile as an introduction to the laws that form the core. Andrea Weiss, in the Women’s Commentary notes that the introduction has three goals: 1) it emphasizes G-D’s role in history, 2) it present Israel’s acquisition of its territory in theological terms, and 3) it underscores obedience to G-D.


Unlike the Torah edition which views Moses as the prototype prophet, the history edition views Moses as wholly unique


never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses whom G-D knew face-to-face (Dt. 34:10)


Within the history edition, covenant and Torah are treated interchangeably. The focus is on Moses. As we will see on looking more closely at today’s parsha it is a historical summary. Moses takes on the role of a teacher of history - what lessons can be drawn from looking at the past as we move forward into the future.


Moses outlines in memorable detail to the people gathered around, all the laws and instructions that had been previously presented to their parents and grandparents: the adults to whom Moses is speaking were either young children, or not yet born when the Israelites began their wanderings. You might recall from parsha sh’lach, that every one of the generation (over 20 and counted in the census) was condemned to die in the desert (ie the Israelites would be wandering until that generation had died out) - only those under 20, who were not included in the census plus as Judith Antonelli pointed out, the women, and the Levites who were also not part of the census would be allowed to enter the land.


At the time of Moses’ speech outside of the women, the Levites and Moses, Caleb, and Joshua, the oldest male would be 57. Is this realistic? Not according to one rabbi – who states that this  implies that G-D shortened the lifespan of every male that left Egypt. But is this not what G-D announced basically in Sh’lach. Rabbi Chark states no, the phrasing means that the leadership considerations of the last generation were no longer given any consideration whatever in the succeeding one.


Not only is Moses telling the people where they have been and what took place he is connecting them to their ancestral history –

they are told to behave when going through Seir as it belongs to the children of Esau (who are your relatives); again when they are reminded that when they cross through Moab, and through Ammon they should not challenge the inhabitants of these places as they are descendants of Lot. In a few deft strokes the Israelites have been connected to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and their extended families, and have learned that 1) its neighbours are kin, and 2) in the same way G-D enabled them to drive out the Rephaim, and settle the land so G-D will ensure success for the Israelites when they settle Cana’an


Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his commentary notes that the passages referring to their travels through Seir, Ammon, and Moab serve two purposes: to illustrate and remind the Israelites that G-D is ruler of the world; G-D’s responsibilities do not stop at the borders of the Promised land, nor are they limited to the concerns of the Israelites; furthermore it reminds the Israelites that they are NOT to see themselves as a “conquering” nation - in other words G-D had assigned certain peoples to certain lands and this was “fixed” those assigned their lands could not be replaced. – the Israelites needed to be reminded of this, according to Hirsch, so that they would be aware that “acts of war” were to be limited to the possessing of the land G-D had chosen for them and that the other nations were not to fear for their land as a result of any actions of the Israelites.


This is reinforced further when Moses tells the Israelites that the Rephaim, the original inhabitants of the land of the Ammonites were driven out by the Ammonites with G-D’s help.


I would also add that the detail concerning who had the land and who was removed from the land is a reminder that the land is not hereditary, it does not come with guarantees, others lived on this land previously - I - G-D moved them off the land and this can happen to you also - this seemingly straightforward history of land settlement contains within it a warning and rebuke - this is your land but as along as you maintain your side of the covenant.


G-D’s power in these matters is reinforced by the brief statement at the end of this section concerning Sichon, king of the Amorites.

The Amorites have no kinship connection to the Israelites; nor do they have a divine right to the land; their presence on the land lacks divine support, so “acts of war’ against the Amorites in order for the Israelites to take this land have G-D’s support, especially since Sichon, like Pharaoh before him, had his heart hardened against the Israelites.