The Fifth Book, Told In First-Person


Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 7:53 p.m.
Torah: Deut. 1:1-3:22
Haftarah: Isaiah 1:1-27
Havdalah: 8:52 p.m.
Tisha B’Av: Mon. 8:09 p.m.
Fast ends: Tues. 8:45 p.m.

There are two important issues which must be studied when approaching Devarim, this week’s portion, the first theological and the second textual.

The theological question strikes us from the moment we open this Fifth Book of the Torah. Each of the other four books are written in the third person, in God’s voice, as it were, recording the history, narrating the drama and commanding the laws. This fifth book is written in the first person. Moses is speaking with his voice to the people of Israel. Does this mean that the first four are God’s and the fifth is Moses’?

The Spanish 15th-century biblical interpreter and faithful disciple of Maimonides, Don Isaac Abarbanel, queries, “whether Deuteronomy was given by God from Heaven, containing words from the mouth of the Divine as [is] the rest of the Torah, or whether Moses spoke this book by himself … what he himself understood to be the intent of the Divine … as the [Torah] states, ‘And Moses began to elucidate this Torah’ [Deut. 1:5].”

Abarbanel concludes that whereas the first four books are God’s words written down by Moses, this fifth book contains Moses’ words, which God commanded the prophet to write down. In this manner, Deuteronomy has equal sanctity with the rest of the Five Books.

Perhaps Abarbanel is agreeing with a provocative interpretation of the verse, “Moses will speak, and the Lord will answer him with a voice” [Exodus 19:19], which I once heard in the name of the Kotzker Rebbe, who asked: “What is the difference whether God speaks and Moses answers Amen, or Moses speaks and God answers Amen?”

The second issue is textual in nature. The Book of Deuteronomy is Moses’ long farewell address. Moses feels compelled to provide personal reflections on the significance of the commandments, as well as his personal spin on many of the most tragic desert events.

From the very beginning of Moses’ monologue, he cites God’s invitation to the Israelites to conquer the Land of Israel. This would be the perfect introduction to a retelling of the sin of the miraglim (scouts) whose evil report dissuaded the Israelites from attempting the conquest. Indeed, he does begin to recount, “But you all drew near to me and said, ‘Let us send out men before us, and let them scout out the land and report to us on the matter…” [Deut. 1:22]. But this retelling comes 14 verses after God’s initial invitation, and these intervening 14 verses are filled with what appears to be recriminations against a nation which Moses “cannot carry (bear) alone” [Deut. 1:9]. Only after this excursus from the topic at hand does Moses discuss the failed reconnaissance mission. Why the excursus? How does it explain the failed mission?

From God’s initial approach to Moses at the Burning Bush, Moses was a reluctant leader. The reason was clear: Moses called himself “heavy of speech.” I have previously explained this on the basis of an interpretation of the Ralbag to mean that Moses was not given to “light banter.” He was so immersed in the “heavy” issues, that he had neither the patience nor the interest to convince an ungrateful and stiff-necked people to trust in God and conquer the Promised Land. Moses spent so much time in the companionship of the Divine that he lost the will — and ability — to consort with regular humanity.

Moses knew himself. The verses leading up to the sin of the scouts are hardly an excuse. They explain his failure to give proper direction to the delegation of tribal princes, his inability to censure their report, his unwillingness to convince them of the critical significance of the conquest of the land. He could not bear the burden, the grumblings, of a nation that was too removed from God to be able to follow Him blindly.

Back to theology: Maimonides [Guide to the Perplexed, II:32] explains that even at Mount Sinai, the entire nation only heard a sound emanating from the Divine, a “kol”; each individual understood that sound in accordance with his specific and individual spiritual standing, while Moses was the only one able to “divine” the precise will of God within that sound — the words of the 10 commandments. Moses produced the first four books of the Torah that constitute God’s words as internalized and written by Moses, the greatest prophet of all. Moses communicated with God. Moses may not always have spoken successfully to his own generation, but he did write for us and for Jewish eternity.

Moses also had a legacy and interpretation to leave. In the Book of Deuteronomy, he spoke to his people, telling them not God’s words but his own and God commanded him to write down these words, as well, for all eternity. God was granting the Divine imprimatur of Torah to Moses’ Book of Deuteronomy, making it His (God’s) book as well. Moses spoke and God answered Amen. 

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat.