Torah Portion Devarim Notes
Deuteronomy 1:1 - 3:22


Let’s start with the name of the book. It won’t surprise you that I don’t care for its common name that we’ve derived principally from the Greek -Deuteronomy, which essentially means, the second law or repetition of the law. There is - to be fair - a basis for this name in a key Hebrew phrase, and indeed there is considerable coverage of the mitzvoth in the book.

But the Hebrew name for this first portion and the book as a whole is Devarim, meaning Words. For reasons we’ll discuss in a moment, there is a great richness to the idea that the book throughout is fundamentally about words. This valedictory, these words, of Moses are about a lot more than a repetition of law or mitzvoth, as we’ll see today. The final words of Moses carry so much meaning and value to the people then, the people in the 7th century BCE, and all the people from then to now. So, as with the other books of the Hebrew Bible, I prefer here to use the Hebrew name in mentioning this book, Devarim. 

When was this book written? I’m not going to touch that question! By tradition, all words in Torah came from God to Moses at Sinai and then on to us. I don’t fight tradition because I believe that the Bible came from God and was received by inspired people of God, including especially our teacher, Moses. But, as to the time and manner of its being written down and edited, I’m fine with looking at historical evidence and developing views on the basis of it. 

There is considerable evidence that the first four books of Torah were compiled together, and that Devarim appeared separately, at least initially, with considerable influence of thinking in the north, in Israel, and perhaps compilation and discovery in Judea in the time of King Josiah. 

We could go into far greater detail on all this and the many differing views of the origin and construction of the book. We won’t today. It’s a matter for further study for those of you who want to engage in it. Yet, I wanted you to have at least a little background.

The key point that I want to make in this brief introduction: this book serves as Moses’ final words to the people before he dies and before they enter the land. Torah ends with these orations.

The words are designed essentially to re-cap the people’s journey together, the mitzvoth they’ve been given to govern their covenant with God, as they enter the land, and Moses’ eloquent plea with the people to stay true to that covenant now and forever. Do note the differences between these words and their comparable words we studied in the accounts in the other four books. Though we’ll occasionally explore such differences, we’ll focus mainly on the substance of the appeal here. It is a powerful appeal in so many ways - ethically, religiously, socially, historically, psychologically, emotionally, rhetorically, etc. Indeed it’s one of the most powerful set of “speeches” of all time.

Our work is mostly to explore and understand its content and its meaning then and now, but I also want you to appreciate the art, the beauty, and the power of the words themselves. So, look at that, too, and let’s discuss both as we go through Devarim. 

I.        Read 1:1. All sorts of questions arise. 

These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel across the Jordan River, in the desert, on the plain across from Suph, between Paran and Tophel, Laban, Hazeroth, and Di-zahab 

A.      1. Whose words are these, and what does that mean to you?

(These are the words of Moses, though they’re in accord with instructions of God (3), which Moses expounds here (5). This is his valedictory. Recall that he began his career by pleading that he was not a man of words, an ish d’varim. Now, after 40 years plus of his leading the people, all these words are his, and they’re eloquent and powerful. They comprise the last book of Torah and guide us to this day.

2. Where have we encountered the idea of “words” before in our study together? 

(Let the idea of “words” resonate in your mind, for it was with words that God created the world, when “He said…..” It was through the Ten Words, that God began the revelation. It was through words that the oral tradition of instruction was conducted. And it is through words here that Moses prepares the people, us, to enter the promised land. And they include Moses’ teaching of many words of Divine instruction, involving mitzvoth, as we’ll see mostly in the middle portions of the book.)

B. To whom are the words addressed? And what does that mean? 

(1.To all Israel, not just the priests, not the elders, or the leaders, but to all of us, just as at Sinai. This means to me that we should all listen up, and listen good. This is for us, with meaning and purpose, that call us to pay attention, read and hear, learn from, and act on. 

The words to us generally will be divided in three parts: a critique of the people’s waywardness in the wilderness, a discussion of mitzvoth and guidance that Moses wants to emphasize to the people before entering the land, and a farewell.) 

2. As to the first segment, here’s a fun fact in Hebrew: the word for bees in Hebrew is d’vorim, which is very close to d’varim, words. What might words, these words in particular, and bees have in common? 

1.      Some sages made the point that Moses’ words sting the people (who strayed) at the beginning of the book as would a bee. But, ironically and similarly, both deliverers of the sting die in the act!

2.      Others: Individual bees follow a leader, as do the people with Moses

3.      Others: we get both honey and stings from bees. Also, we get sweet from these words when we live by them and stings when we don’t.

4.      Others: whatever honey we store away, as with words we learn and follow, it’s sweetness we keep and store away in this life and for God.)

II.      A. Let’s read verse 5 alone to get a sense of Moses’ basic purpose here. 

Beyond the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses began to explain this Torah.

What do you see?

(Bayair et hatorah - to explain this Torah. What does that mean?

To expound on all the teaching - its background, its essence, its meaning, and its consequence. We get a sense it’s the whole teaching, not just the words we see exclusively here, but rather from all the books, as we experienced in the wisdom literature. The words that define this mission statement give this book a broader and different feel right from the start.) 

B.     After beginning his account of their journey as directed by God from the mountain, we come upon these verses: Read 1:9-14.

At that same time, I told you: I can’t handle all of you by myself. 10 The Lord your God has multiplied your number—you are now as countless as the stars in the sky. 11 May the Lord, your ancestors’ God, continue to multiply you—a thousand times more! And may God bless you, just as he promised. 12 But how can I handle all your troubles, burdens, and disputes by myself? 13 Now, for each of your tribes, choose wise, discerning, and well-regarded individuals. I will appoint them as your leaders.  14 You answered me: “What you have proposed is a good idea.”

Do you recall this matter being discussed this way the first time we encountered it in the text? If not, what’s different, and why?

(We never heard this sort of pained and burdened tone in his discussion with Yitro or the people, did we? These surely are the perspectives of a man who has come to the end of his strength and time. Or, is it possible that he has another motive to sound this way?

Does he want to impress on the people a keen sense of how hard a burden it’s been? Does it make the listener feel perhaps some pathos or regret? Do recall the weakness was that of the previous generation, one for which they were punished. He certainly wants to distinguish this group from its predecessor. Also, his account does pull at the heart; it certainly does mine.)

C. Read 15-18. Why is Moses emphasizing, and why does he do it upfront here?

15 So I took leading individuals from your tribes, people who were wise and well-regarded, and I set them up as your leaders. There were commanders over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens, as well as officials for each of your tribes. 16 At that same time, I commanded your judges: Listen to your fellow tribe members and judge fairly, whether the dispute is between one fellow tribe member or between a tribe member and an immigrant. 17 Don’t show favoritism in a decision. Hear both sides out, whether the person is important or not. Don’t be afraid of anyone because the ruling belongs to God. Any dispute that is too difficult for you to decide, bring to me and I will take care of it. 18 So at that time, I commanded you concerning everything you were to do.

(These leaders must, and will, take up the vital business of administering justice when they go into the land. We could spend a great deal of time on the exact words that describe the principles here of justice, judges, and the judicial process. It’s fantastic. But, we can only look at these “great paintings” as time forces us quickly “through the gallery.”

What I want you to remember above all else is the emphasis here on principles of justice and judging, as if he wants to say early on that justice is absolutely to be front and center to his listeners, including us.)

III. A. I want to encourage you to read the rest of the first chapter on your own to compare this account with the one we’ve already studied. You’ll see events and perspectives that appear quite different (including the failure to make any mention of Caleb and Joshua in the account of the spies), but none perhaps more so than verse 37. Read 37. Is this what we learned that explained why Moses is not going into the land? Why the difference? What might Moses be saying?

(It was because of his striking the rock, no? We talked that out and what that meant. Is Moses saying that his striking the rock was “because of” them? Because of his frustration with them? The burden of them? Or is he saying that there was something else, something associated with the failure of the people to go into the land way back when that caused his punishment? Was there something Moses did or didn’t do then that caused a problem? Letting the people go scout the land? Some other failure of leadership? Some combination of things that merge in Moses’ mind from experiences over the whole time?)

B. Look at the overall effect of the speech and all its elements. It’s worth serious study. It has all the elements of effective oratory. It’s certainly political in a good sense. Moses wants to prepare the people for the challenges ahead. It may be that understanding vividly the apostasy of the past and its huge cost and loss and as well as the sharp distinction between this group and the generation that preceded it is crucial to the readiness of this group. Moses seems always to be seeking to make the distinction as clear as possible. Yet, he knows that while the previous generation was that much closer to slavery, it was also that much closer to experiencing directly God’s miracles.

Can you, especially those of you who have studied this text, share thoughts on how does he do this?

(He creates more sympathy for his position, which may increase his authority. He wants this group to understand the loss their predecessors experienced, without scaring them, but definitely generating a sense of responsibility within them. He wants them to sense that they can do it (which is why he started this whole oration with the victory they achieved over Sihon and Og), and that it is God’s design that it be so. We also get a sense that they are to take the land and occupy it, but it must be without killing at will (avoiding the Ammonites, etc.)

This is a remarkable oration - in terms of psychology, leadership, politics, ethics, and effective transition of people, authority, and movement.

III.    We must make a brief stop at 2:4-7. How do you explain this admonition from God to pass so carefully by the land of Esau? 

Command the people as follows: You are about to enter into the territory of your relatives who live in Seir: Esau’s descendants. They will be afraid of you, so watch yourselves most carefully. Don’t fight with them because I will not give the tiniest parcel of their land to you. I have given Mount Seir to Esau’s family as their property. Of course you may buy food from them with money so you can eat, and also water with money so you can drink. No doubt about it: the Lord your God has blessed you in all that you have done. He watched over your journey through that vast desert. Throughout these forty years the Lord your God has been with you. You haven’t needed a thing.

(First, it shows that the people are not unlimited in the land that exists for them. This not about acquisition by power. We see several peoples whose lands were not intended for Israel. Further, this honors the resolution between Esau and Jacob, no? Recall what we learned at the end of their story. Recall Isaac’s vision for his sons? Shouldn’t remembering and honoring that dream be featured now, as the people approach the land?)

V. Conclusion.

Read 3:21-22.

21 It was at that same time that I commanded Joshua: You saw everything that the Lord your God did to these two kings. That is exactly what the Lord will do to all the kingdoms where you’re going! 22 Don’t be afraid of them because the Lord your God is the one who will be fighting for you.

A. Moses is, on the surface, saying that Joshua and the others have seen the victory over these two kingdoms and thus should have confidence as they move into the land. But is there a deeper message as well?

(I think Moses is saying that Joshua has seen all the miracles God has wrought, including these victories. It is his task of leadership to teach and inspire what he has seen with his own eyes to the people (who did not directly experience the miracles) in its broadest sense, including instilling faith in God’s support in taking the land.

Moses understands two truths. He knows the weakness of the people as they started out on the journey and the proneness to weakness at all times. Yet, there has been growth, a strengthening of faith, of readiness, of solidity in the covenant. He is teaching both, as if to make the people aware of the former and to seek to be more of the latter. This is necessary as the people prepare to go into, take, and begin to live in the land.)

B. Let me ask you a question we’ll explore at much greater length in future weeks. Now think, as we’ve learned, to see the surface, the clothes of the text, as well as the body, and the inner soul. What’s the promised land the people will enter?

(This promised land is not only what it appears on the surface of the text, as the physical land there, in Israel; it is also more broadly the terrain wherever we are physically, but especially within our souls and spirit, where we live in covenant with God. We keep this land, as God promises, when we live as God expects, and we risk losing it, if we don’t. Moses wants us to know above all else here that faith in God and God’s support comes first, as we prepare to enter the land God has set out for us in our lives.)

C. One more final question today: why does Moses stress the point at the end of the portion, “Don’t fear them, for it is the Lord your God who will battle for you?”

(The need to focus on, and build a greater reliance on, a living and abiding faith in God for support is a fundamental goal of this valedictory. Moses knows how central this is to living well in the way God has set out. With this faith, we can survive our fear of all the “thems,” including the kingdoms and all else that threatens, because we will live in confidence that the Lord our God “will battle for us.” This is central to our spirit and consciousness as we prepare to enter and then live in the land.)

[See the discussion of this in today’s handout]

Torah Portion Devarim Notes

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