Parashat Devarim begins the final of the five books of the Torah, Devarim or in English Deuteronomy. The Book is a synopsis of the previous 40 years of wandering through the desert. Devarim is based on a number of speeches given by Moses as part of his farewell speeches to the Children of Israel.
Parashat Devarim In A Nutshell
- Moses Rebukes the People for the sins of the past.
- The appointment of judges
- The mission of the spies
- The journey towards the Land of Israel
- The war against Og
- The inheritance of Reuben and Gad
בְּעֵ֥בֶר הַיַּרְדֵּ֖ן בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מוֹאָ֑ב הוֹאִ֣יל מֹשֶׁ֔ה בֵּאֵ֛ר אֶת־הַתּוֹרָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את לֵאמֹֽר׃
On the other side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses undertook to expound this Teaching, saying: (Deut. 1:3)
Rashi quotes from the midrash “ [MOSES BEGAN] TO EXPLAIN THIS LAW — in the seventy languages of the ancient world did he explain it to them (Midrash Tanchuma, Devarim 2; Genesis Rabbah 49; cf Sotah 32a and Rashin on Deuteronomy 27:8)
One of the greatest challenges that any book faces is how to make it relevant for the next generation. If we look at the classics of English literature one struggles to connect with the texts in a meaningful way.
I remember reading Henry Melville’s famous novel Moby Dick, it is a beautiful read and powerful story. However, in the middle of the book, there is a 200-page description of whaling in the 19th century.
In that time when there was no internet nor encyclopedia, it made sense. But to trawl through those 200 pages was hard. Shakespeare is written in old English. To make it relevant, we have adaptions to the stories, modernising them for the 21st-century audience. The text may be dated but themes are timeless, reflecting the nature of humanity.
The Torah understood this problem. We have an ancient text, 3300 years old.
How is this ancient text, from the Bronze Age meant to speak to us in the digital, information age?
The answer to this question is that the Torah is a timely and timeless work. It is written in a timely fashion, the cases described refer to that which is relevant to the age of Moses. However, embedded in the text are timeless principles.
If the Torah describes the case of my ox goring your ox. The text talks about cows, however, the underlying principles refer to my property damaging your property and what are my responsibilities.
The Torah is referred to as Living waters – מים חיים In the same way as a human cannot survive without water, so too, a Jew cannot survive without the Torah. It is living water. The Torah flows from one generation to another, providing guidance and inspiration to each generation.
The Hebrew word for Jewish Law is telling. The Word is Halacha, which has at its root the word Halach- to walk. The Torah walks and accompanies us on our journey. It is our constant companion and guide over the millennia. Where we go, the Torah goes. She sheds her light and steers a course for us for each generation and provides the answers for its challenges.
This is the meaning of the phrase “be’er et hatorah“. Moses explained the Torah in 70 languages. This does not mean that it was only translated into the languages of the ancient world. It means that no matter the language that the Jewish People would be speaking, the Torah would be understood by them. Not only English, Russian and Arabic. But also the language of the youth of today.
The challenge for us as parents, teachers, rabbis and educators is to package the message in a language that the audience can understand.
This is particularly true in our generation. With so many challenges for our time, from Netflix and Youtube to the social media, Jewish educators have to present and package Judaism in a way that is equal to, in terms of content and interest to inspire today’s Jews.
Our generation is blessed with a level of educational sophistication yet, at the same time, there are so many basic skills that Jews are missing. Knowledge and Jewish practice, which we assume they have, they lack. I have found that the challenge is to introduce the key concepts, principles, precepts and practices in a way that is meaningful and inspiring. This is my greatest challenge and the main reason behind building this group and a new website.
The People And The Water
What worked for one generation, will not necessarily work for the next. Moses learned this as a leader. The Torah relates that Moses was twice confronted with the People complaining about the lack of water. In the first story, in Exodus, he is told to strike the rock, in the second, In Numbers, speak to the rock.
On the surface this a story about a lack of water. However, on a symbolic level, we can view the rock as the people and the water, knowledge. What worked for one generation, 40 years later, does not work for the next generation. Speak to the Rock do not strike it. Hashem warns. This is a different generation. Although on the surface the complaint is the same. It is not true. You, Moses, need a different response for them.
Parashat Devarim and Torah’s Timeless Message
The Torah has timeless messages that offer guidance to each generation. Moses gave the Children of Israel 70 different approaches to interpreting the Torah. Our task is to find the approach that meaningfully connects us to Torah and Judaism and in turn, to introduce to them to our children, students and community, so that they too will connect them to our heritage.