Words are one of the cornerstones of all three monotheistic faiths. Judaism, as we know it today, is built on words — reading them, understanding them, parsing them, debating them, relating them. Words have the power to create and destroy, wreak havoc, and foster hope. The Book of Deuteronomy, the last book of the Torah, the one that is the bridge between the divine word and all the words that follow, begins with “These are the words that Moses spoke” (Deut. 1:1). Indeed, the name of the parashah, “Devarim.” literally means “words.”
The commentaries debate the essential nature of the book, which is Moses’ last speech to the Israelites before he dies and they enter the Promised Land. Rashi sees the Book of Deuteronomy as a long rebuke for past sins, albeit in couched terms. The opening verses (1:1-5) are full of allusions to sins that the Israelites committed during their 40-year desert sojourn, yet the veiled references, as well as the fact that Moses rebukes them only in the waning days of his life, contain profound lessons for us about the power of words. Rashi, citing the Midrash Sifrei, tells us that Moses learned from Jacob that one only rebukes his children at the end of one’s life, to spare the children the embarrassment of having to face their parents afterwards. Furthermore, the past sins of the nation were veiled in hints in order to protect “the honor of Israel.” Even though the content was serious and painful, it was delivered in a way that communicated reverence for the past, honor and love to those present, and lessons to be learned by future generations.
Ramban (Nachmanides) sees the book as being multifaceted. He agrees with Rashi that Moses is admonishing the people for past sins, but adds that the purpose of this exercise is to educate and warn them not to repeat the mistakes of the past, since the consequences are clear. Moreover, the review of the past would serve to prove to the Israelites how much God loves them and how gracious God is, even though He punished them, He also took care of them and supplied them with all their needs for 40 years. As God did in the past, so God would do in the future. The words connect the people to a difficult past, while propelling them towards a challenging, yet hopeful, future.
Ramban feels that the main purpose of the book, however, is to teach. Chapter 1:5 says: “On the other side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses undertook to expound this Teaching…” Deuteronomy is called Torat Moshe (the teachings of Moses) by the sages, and Ramban takes that literally; the book’s function is to teach and explicate all the laws to the new generation and to all the generations that follow. Moses’ audience was not present at Sinai, yet they were the ones that would be entering the land and putting the laws into practice. There are laws mentioned in Deuteronomy that are not stated explicitly anywhere else in the Torah, and many others that are reframed as they are repeated. The laws and the words used to frame them were what the Israelites needed to build their future society.
Deuteronomy is an “edited” version of the past, and these edits also reflect the purpose of the book. In relaying the backstory and criteria for selecting judges, for example, the account in Deuteronomy diverges from the narrative in Exodus. In Exodus, Moses tells his father-in-law that he is answering legal questions and communicating God’s law, while in Deuteronomy, he complains, “How can I bear unaided the trouble of you, and the burden, and the bickering!” (1:12). In Exodus, Jethro recommends that Moses look for “men of valor, God-fearing men, men of truth and hating bribes” (18:21), while in Deuteronomy, Moses tells the people that they need to find men who are “wise, insightful, and known to your tribes” (1:13).
Each of the verses in Devarim holds poignant lessons for us. Verse 12, which opens with the elegiac word eichah (how), alludes to what undermines the Abrahamic blessing of being a nation as multitudinous as the stars: internal strife. The destruction of each of the two ancient Temples was connected to a disregard of the laws concerning interpersonal relations and a breakdown of the structure and fabric of a moral, compassionate, and just society. Verse 13 relates that judges must be selected on objective, replicable, and equitable criteria, because only God and the prophets can perceive someone’s soul. “Choose for yourselves” says Moses. The society we have is a reflection of the standards we set for choosing our judges. These are messages that Moses needs to impart for the people who will set up a Torah-centric society. They are timeless and apply to us as well.
Our sages tell us that there are “70 faces to the Torah.” Moses’ explication, begun in Devarim, continues to this day, and the understandings, opinions, and debates around the Torah’s words are never-ending. Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, uses the debates of Hillel and Shammai as the exemplar of an argument “for the sake of heaven.” These two Torah giants disagreed on many aspects of practical halachah, yet their students ate in one another’s homes and married one another’s children. Hillel and Shammai’s arguments were not about ego or power, but about ethos and principles. At the end of the day, they were all engaged in the same goal: explicating words to reveal the path that God sets for us to follow.
May we honor the spirit of Hillel and Shammai in our disagreements and our discourse. May we all use our words to sow seeds of compassion, understanding, and to build a better world.