Parshat Devarim – Understanding the ‘Torah’ that Moses imparts

Parshat Devarim

Understanding the “Torah” that Moses imparts

1.These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel on that side of the Jordan in the desert, in the plain opposite the Red Sea, between Paran and Tofel and Lavan and Hazeroth and Di Zahav. 2. It is eleven days’ journey from Horeb by way of Mount Seir to Kadesh Barnea. 3. It came to pass in the fortieth year, in the eleventh month, on the first of the month, that Moses spoke to the children of Israel according to all that the Lord had commanded him regarding them; 4. After he had smitten Sihon, king of the Amorites, who dwelt in Heshbon, and Og, king of the Bashan, who dwelt in Ashtaroth in Edrei.

Devarim/Deuteronomy  1:1-4

One would expect the opening salvo of Parshat Devarim – the first parsha in the final book of the Pentateuch – to deliver  major bang for the buck. And yet, what we get – seemingly – is a four-verse litany of yawn-inducing geographic and historic minutiae.  After all, here we are poised at the edge of Canaan, about to invade and reclaim our patrimony and the best we get is the precise longitude and latitude of where the Children of Israel are standing, and how many days journey it has been since Horeb.

Yet, once we read what follows – namely Moses’ actual teaching – we come to understand the overarching significance of these opening verses.

5. On that side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses commenced [and] explained this Torah, saying, 6. “The Lord our God spoke to us in Horeb, saying, ‘You have dwelt long enough at this mountain. 7. Turn and journey, and come to the mountain of the Amorites and to all its neighboring places, in the plain, on the mountain, and in the lowland, and in the south and by the seashore, the land of the Canaanites, and the Lebanon, until the great river, the Euphrates River. 8. See, I have set the land before you; come and possess the land which the Lord swore to your forefathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them and their descendants after them.

Deuteronomy/Devarim 1:5-8 

What we have here is Moses about to retire from the scene. The Children of Israel are on the brink of entering and taking over Eretz Israel.  He has to impart his final Torah teaching to the People he has lead for 40 years and eleven months.

And he achieves this by going to great pains to to communicate three things:

  1. The precise venue in which this event is taking place – including its locus relative to other locations by way of travel time;
  2. The greater historical moment, i.e. a backdrop of significant history-making events against which this teaching is taking place;
  3. The precise borders and geography of the land they are about to enter and inherit.

One of the anomalies characteristic of nomadic gypsies is that they have no sense of history or place. They have music and dance, a rich folklore of costumes and tales. But there is no historical awareness, no record keeping, no tradition of rootedness, no sense of time. This is typical of all nomadic peoples.

After 40 years of wandering in the desert, it might be expected that the Israelites, too, would have no sense of history, of location, or connectivity to past or future. All would have been buried under the shifting desert sands.

And yet precisely the opposite is the case. The Torah is emphatic about the importance of time and place.  Context is king. Locations are fixed, and at the same time suspended between other locations. Time is anchored by way of celebrating Sabbaths and festivals.   And, above all, there is the Land where past and future coalesce in the present – a defined property whose boundaries are spelled out, and which are inviolate and immutable.

In other words it is the combination of fluid time, motion in space, and a fixed address that fuse together to facilitate an eternal people capable of retaining its selfhood while evolving as necessary. This is what history is.  And a nation is nothing without its sense of history and its place in history. Because that is how destiny is defined.

Having established the time, place and point in both actual time and geographic continuums, Moses can now teach Torah. And what does he teach? Not the laws of Shabbat, not about ritual purity and impurity, not even about agricultural commandments and sabbaticals. No, the Torah he teaches is that Torah study alone is not life. 6. “The Lord our God spoke to us in Horeb, saying, ‘You have dwelt long enough at this mountain. 7. Turn and journey

He is reminding the People of Israel that G-d wants them to move on in life, to establish a country, to build a nation, to be productive.  Moses is telling us, in no uncertain terms and for all time, that sitting in a yeshiva –the latter day version of Horeb – is not what it is all about. That pressing a bench in the modern day Horeb known as a kollel, is not what G-d wants. That disconnecting oneself from any historical context and narrative, and dislocating oneself from the physical essence of Jewish life – the Land of Israel – is the very opposite of how we should live.

See, I have set the land before you; come and possess the land which the Lord swore to your forefathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them and their descendants after them.” (1:8)

This means hard physical work – planting, forestry, construction, road building, manufacture, medicine, technology and, of course, defense. It means doing the practical things that make a viable and defensible society.

Sadly, there are many in the Jewish world who ignore history, who – like the gypsies – have no real sense of space, time and geographical context, and for whom all learning and observance are effectively decontextualized from both history and location.  They quote Scripture and Talmud with utter disregard for when and where a particular event took place, often doing the opposite by dislocating and decontextualizing the event to suit an exegetical purpose that flies in the face of reality.  And for them, Torah itself is somehow disconnected from the Land of Israel, which is at most an option, and, for most, an undesirable option at that.

And yet, right here in the opening of Devarim, Moses makes it very clear that such an existence – an idealized Horeb existence of abstract ‘learning’ is absolutely wrong.

Indeed, “The Lord our God spoke to us in Horeb, saying, ‘You have dwelt long enough at this mountain’” (1:6)

Horeb was the Lakewood and the Gateshead  and the Mir of its time.  It was a Torah resort where men did nothing but, perhaps, study.  They had no desire or motivation to pick themselves up and move on.  G-d must admonish them to do so in order to: “…come and possess the land which the Lord swore to your forefathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them and their descendants after them.” (1.8)

This is the essential Torah that Moses teaches in his final days – that it is all about the Land. And the Land is all about time and space, the journey that was and the journey yet to come; spiritual, legal, agricultural, industrial, political journeys (and yes, battles) that are integral to the establishment, growth and viability of a nation state.

When “Moses commenced [and] explained this Torah “(1:5)  the Torah he discusses is not legal minutiae, temple ritual,  impurities of the flesh. Rather his entire focus is on driving home an understanding of the centrality of the Land of Israel and the context and crucible of time and place in which it was coming to be for then and forever.  He made the priorities of Torah very clear.

We are currently living a very dramatic moment in our history as a People in its Land.  We are sacrificing precious young men to insure our place. And all of us have seen either first hand or through video clips the incredible faith and motivation of our citizen soldiers who dance their way to battle having learned and absorbed and internalized the very lesson Moses teaches here in the opening of Devarim.  These soldiers know where they came from. They know where they are going. They know why they are here. And they have the genuine faith that comes only from a love and connection to the land. And it is simply breathtaking.

Would that others, both those stuck in the overseas diaspora and those stuck even more tragically in a diaspora of decontextualized, disconnected learning here in Israel take their cues from our noble citizen defenders for whom being Jewish is something that informs every fiber of their being.

And in their merit – because it can only be in their merit – may we live to see victory, peace and redemption.

About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.
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