The Power of Personal Narrative and the Oral Torah

“See, the Lord your God has placed the land before you. Go up, take possession, as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, promised you. Fear not and do not be dismayed” (Devarim 1,21).

As we open up the Book of Devarim, the fifth and final book of the Torah, there is an important question waiting for us: what is left to tell? All the stories of the Torah have already been told. The passing of the leadership has already taken place from Moshe to Yehoshua, and from Aharon HaCohen to Eliezer. The next saga of the Jewish story, the crossing of the Jordan and the tales of entering the promised land, is for the next chapter in the Jewish story, the Book of Yehoshua. 

Most of The Book of Devarim is a retelling; but what was wrong with the first version of these stories that we need them repeated? 

True, Sefer Devarim is a repetition of the stories and many of the mitzvot (though next week we’ll discuss that more). As a matter of fact, our Sages nicknamed this last of the five books the Mishneh Torah, or the repetition of the Torah. But as we open this book, we should keep in mind an important principle: everything in the Book of Devarim adds to what was already presented.  

How does it add? Let’s look at the uniqueness of the text of this book as compared to the four that came before it. From a literary perspective, the point of view of the narrator is totally different. Up until now the text has been told from the third-person perspective, i.e., he, she, and they. The entirety of the text has been told by an omniscient narrator, as we see over and over again with the phrase, “and God said to Moshe, saying.”

But the Book of Devarim is wholly different. We are thrust into a much more personal and intimate first-person narration, i.e. I and we. Suddenly we are not looking at the stories through an objective lens, but rather Moshe’s subjective retelling of the stories. One might mistakenly think that this would make this book less significant.  But it is not; Devarim is considered equal in authority and sanctity to all the other four books of the Torah.

So if everything in the Book of Devarim adds to what came before it, what does this shift in narrative voice add? Let’s look briefly at Moshe’s telling of the sin of the spies to see what is added. When he tells the nation that it is time to enter the land, this is how Moshe describes their response:

“Then all of you came to me and said, ‘Let us send men ahead to survey the land for us and bring back word on the route we shall follow and the cities we shall come to.’ I approved of the plan, and so I selected twelve of your men, one from each tribe” (Devarim 1,22-23).

We never heard any mention of this conversation in Parshat Shelach; the only hint we heard was when God said to Moshe, “Shelach Lecha,” Send for yourself, i.e., feel free to send them, but I’m not the one requesting it. Here it is clear to see the addition, as we see greater detail into the story itself.

Moshe continues and describes his reaction to the report of the spies. Keep in mind in the first telling, the report of the spies is split; two give a positive report, and 10 give a report that sends the nation into a frenzy of fear. But Moshe only tells half the story:

“They took some of the fruit of the land with them and brought it down to us. And they gave us this report: ‘It is a good land that the Lord our God is giving to us.’ Yet you refused to go up, and flouted the command of the Lord your God.” (Devarim 1,25-26)

Surprisingly, Moshe completely neglects to mention the damning report of the spies. He only paraphrases the faithful words of Calev. Did he not hear the words of the spies who said, “We cannot go because the nations who dwell there are stronger than us,” or is he simply choosing to ignore their words in his retelling of the story? 

We don’t know for sure, but there is one thing we do know: Moshe’s telling exposes his biases. As opposed to being the objective vehicle for God’s Torah, he now becomes the subjective teller of Torat Moshe. Again, this does not lessen the importance of the retelling. The Zohar famously teaches that the “Divine presence speaks through Moshe’s voice,” which stresses the Divine significance of Moshe’s subjective perspective. The Torah would not be complete without it. 

As we read through Moshe’s personal retelling of the journeys in the desert, we experience Moshe’s frustrations in a more tangible way. We taste the bitterness of his defeats. We feel his pain. We experience his humanity. If it were not for The Book of Devarim, we would know Moshe as the Man of God, but we might not know him as a person. The human perspective is a critical addition to the Torah. 

There is another key point here as well. Moshe teaches us that the Divine can be expressed through the individual and the subjective. This sets up an essential dynamic for the Torah as a living document which evolves. The insistence on including Moshe’s interpretation of the text opens the door for what we call The Oral Torah. This includes the transmission that Moshe received on Mt. Sinai, but it also includes the ability of the sages to interpret the Torah for their day and age. 

The great Chassidic master known as the Sfat Emet teaches a beautiful insight into the blessing over the Torah: you are the God who gave us Torat Emet, the Torah of truth, i.e. the Written Torah, which is etched in stone. But the blessing continues: “you have planted in us everlasting life.” This is the Oral Torah, the facet of Torah that grows and evolves through time. And it is this aspect of Torah which is called, “Etz Chaim,” The Tree of Life.

This is also the facet of Torah that is connected to subjectivity and interpretation. Interpretation is subjective, based on unique circumstances, and is wholly dependent on the person who is doing the interpretation. And so before Moshe, the giver of the Torah, steps off stage, he teaches how the Torah will continue to be given: through the subjective interpretation of the future Sages. Even with the passing of Moshe, the Torah will grow like a tree and accompany Am Yisrael throughout time. 

So we see that the Book of Devarim indeed adds. Moshe’s subjective retelling of the journey opens the door for a Torah which evolves and grows. And even with the biases and differences in opinion that will accompany it, the Oral Torah is as essential as the tablets carved from stone.

What do you think? Are there mitzvot or practices in the Torah which have changed over time? Which ones have stayed steadfast over the generations?

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Brought to you by the RRG Beit Midrash Program, the spiritual home for Hebrew University students on campus.

About the Author
Rabbi Yonatan Udren is the Co-Director of the RRG Beit Midrash at the Hebrew University Hillel, which offers Jewish educational programming for overseas and Israeli Hebrew University students from all backgrounds and denominations.
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