Moses’ Valedictory At Journey’s End


We all have experienced the Rashomon Effect, when an event is experienced differently by different people. To some degree, the Rashomon Effect is at work in the Book of Devarim (Deuteronomy), the fifth and final book of the Torah. Moses, so reticent and slow of speech at the Burning Bush [Exodus 4:10], “Lo ish devarim anochi” (“I am not a man of words”), is positively voluble here. For 34 chapters Moses speaks, recounting key incidents that Israel experienced over the past 40 years, retelling them from his perspective. “Eleh ha-devarim,” “These are the words” that Moses spoke to all Israel when they camped across the Jordan River from the Promised Land.

Although this fifth book is different from the other four—it is mostly Moses talking and no action—there is still much excitement, pathos and drama right below the surface. Think of it! Moses is 120 years old. Forty years earlier he had reluctantly agreed to return to Egypt to face down a Pharaoh and redeem God’s people. He overcame the suspicions of his brethren, and acting as God’s prophet in a land that sneered at a God of slaves, he achieved the impossible, freeing a multitude. Since then he has led God’s fractious people through a wilderness. He interceded for them when God would have destroyed them all [Ex. 32:10-11]. He has seen them, time and again, cry out to return to Egypt, dismissing centuries of bondage, and lusting after Egypt’s watermelons, cucumbers and fish that they selectively remember [Numbers 11:5].

Now, at journey’s end, we are hearing the valedictory of a heartbroken Moses [Bava Batra 15a; Avivah Zornberg]. The God he has served with loyalty and brilliance has denied him his heart’s desire: to enter the Promised Land with the people he has essentially birthed, taught and led. But, being Moses, he rallies, and in Devarim he does what he does best: he instructs God’s people.

In his recounting of the signal events of the wilderness years — the Revelation at Sinai; the sin of the Golden Calf; the sin of the Spies — not only does Moses retell the events with variations, but he also expounds on over a hundred laws. We might think that Moses’ words — his devarim — are redundant. But of course the opposite is the case. Of the one hundred-plus laws discussed in this book, seventy are completely new! These include the law of tzedakah (giving charity); the law against slandering someone’s good name; against false witnesses; of sending away the mother bird before taking her hatchlings; and the admonition to “Zachor,” to remember Amalek.

The prime question, asks Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, is why Moses has saved these hundred laws to recount or introduce only now, at the very end of his life. One answer is that the people Moses is addressing here never experienced the Exodus, or Amalek’s attack, or the law-giving at Sinai. These Israelites are the new, born-free generation, and in this, his last will and testament, Moses is fired with the purpose of infusing them with the cauterizing, nation-forging experiences they missed, setting them on the path to founding a God-centered society in a new land.

This would explain Moses’ presentation, for the first time, of the charge to recite the Shema [Deut. 6:4], one of only two prayers specifically commanded in the Torah — the other is Birkat HaMazon, the grace after meals [Deut. 8:10]. The Shema, the oldest fixed daily prayer in Judaism, exhorts the people to “hear,” or “attend” to belief in the One God; to love God; and to fear Him. This is key for Moses. If the people love and fear God—as opposed to men or multiple gods—and follow God’s laws, they will succeed in setting up a unique creation: a just society.

Hence the very first of Moses’ devarim is restating the instruction to choose leaders [Deut.1:13]. In Rashomon fashion, this differs from Yitro’s instructions to Moses forty years before [Exodus 18:21]. There, it was Moses who selected the judges. Hereafter, consistent with the move toward self-sufficiency, it is the people who must choose. “Havu lachem anashim chachamim,” says Moses. Select for yourselves wise, understanding, and ethical people to lead you.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, citing the Kli Yakar, notes that in Exodus the people were consistently referred to as Bnei Yisrael, as children — of Jacob, or Israel. Here, in another unique feature of Devarim, Moses refers to the people — 11 times — as “kol Yisrael,” “all Israel.” God’s people are no longer former slaves; they have grown up. They are elementally, proudly “Israel,” a people capable of responsibly constructing a lasting, honest, law-centered society.

Moses’ final oratory — his devarim — holds Israel to a daunting, enduring standard. Three millennia later, societies founded on these principles still grapple with Moses’ truths.

Sandra E. Rapoport is an attorney and award-winning author. Her new book, “The Queen & The Spymaster” (Ktav), is a novel based on the story of Esther.

Candlelighting, Readings:

Shabbat Candles: 8:05 p.m.

Torah: Deut. 1:1-3:22 (Sat.);
Deut. 4:25-4:40 (Sun.)

Haftarah: Isaiah 1:1-27 (Sat.);
Jeremiah 8:13-9:23 (Sun.)

Havdalah: 9:10 p.m.

Tisha b’Av Fast: 8:21 p.m. (Sat.)-8:53 p.m. (Sun.)