Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Devarim (Torah)

Getting a Handle on the Parshah

And so we begin the last of the five Books. At first glance, the Book of Deuteronomy seems more straightforward and in a sense simpler than the other books; yet there are in fact many baffling aspects to it. Sefer Devarim is essentially different from the other books: it is neither narrative, like Genesis, the first 24 chapters of Exodus, and much of Numbers; nor systematic presentation of a series of laws in different areas, one after another, like Leviticus. Essentially, it is a prime example of the art of rhetoric: Moses’ final address to the people before his death.

Like many of my contemporaries, I grew up with the Hertz Humash, which divides the major part of this book into three sections, three great farewell speeches of Moshe Rabbenu: a historical review (1-4:40); exhortation to the observance of the covenant and its mitzvot, with the deriving of didactic lessons from the people’s history (5-11); and a codex of laws, containing both a capsule summary of those laws already given, and a considerable number and variety of new laws (12-26). The last eight chapters of the book contain various covenantal ceremonies and admonitions, the Song of Moses, and final words and deeds up to and concluding in Moses’ death. Today, I would question this facile classification, at least as a hard and fast division into three separate speeches. There is more of a sense of one thing flowing naturally from another: the history in the opening chapters and intermittently later is not presented as an end in itself, but as historiography, the writing of history with an implied interpretation, geared towards a specific purpose; the laws, in turn, follow naturally as the focus of the general exhortation that precedes it.

In any event, the question which most interests me (as in Numbers, but in a different way) is: Why is this book presented as it is? What are the salient themes? What is the logic of the internal order? In Vaethanan and Ekev, our task will be to try to get some handle on its sonorous, poetic rhetoric. But in Parashat Devarim itself, there is another basic question: following the introductory verses (which are themselves very interesting, giving a series of strange and previously unknown place names as the alleged locale for this farewell address; Rashi’s interpretation of this as shorthand for the locale of their sins is classic), the historical review begins with events immediately following the encampment at Horeb: “and God said to you… ‘You have stayed long enough at this mountain” (1:6). If this is a historical review intended to serve a didactic purpose, why does it so conspicuously skip the two central events in the history of that generation—the Exodus from Egypt and the Revelation at Sinai? Instead, it plunges straight into a detailed recounting of the events in the desert emphasizing, on the negative side, the incident of the spies and, on the positive side of the balance sheet, the battle with Sihon and Og. It also goes into great detail about all sorts of folklore and ethnographic matters: the description of Og’s enormous iron bed, and where it can be seen (3:11); the respective names given to Mount Hermon by the Sidonites and Amorites (3:9); which nations lived in the land of the Ammonites before them, and who called them Rephaim and who called them Zamzumim (2:20); etc., etc. Only much later, in Chapter 4, and at greater length in the more didactic Chapters 5-11, does the Torah return to the central events of the Exodus and Sinai and, lehavdil, the great “fault-line” of the Sin of the Golden Calf.

The only answer that makes sense to me (and I haven’t seen this issue discussed anywhere) is that Moses began with what was closest at hand to his audience—the desert experience. We must remember that he was speaking to a new generation: its oldest members were still children or at most teenagers at the time of these great events; the majority of the adults had not yet even been born, and knew these cardinal events only as legends they had heard from their parents and elders. Thus, Moses must start with explaining how they came to be in the desert in the first place, why they are wandering, and specifically the sin of the Spies, which condemned their parents to wander in the desert for forty years. The “vindicating acts of the Lord” (tzidkot ha-Shem), visible in the victories over Sihon and Og, were closer at hand, somehow more easily comprehended, than the mysterious, supernatural events at Sinai, which to them was half legend. Only after this down to earth, almost mundane introduction, was Moses able to turn to the larger issues of meaning.

Some Reflections on Language

Some thoughts on the title of the book, Devarim, “words.” The Sefat Emet (Matot, 5651, s.v. Amru Haza’l) discusses the difference between Moses and the other prophets in terms of the terms used to introduce their words. Whereas the later prophets use the phrase “Koh amar Ha-Shem” (“thus says the Lord”), Moses says “Zeh hadavar asher tzivah…” (“this is the word which the Lord has commanded”). The author mentioned says that this corresponds to the difference between Creation and Revelation; on a deeper level, “saying” is an external expression of will, whereas “word” or “speech” alludes to a more inward level, to the very essence of a thing.

This comment elicits reflections about contemporary conceptions of language. Much of 20th century philosophy is concerned with issues of semiotics, the meaning of language and speech; the so-called “post-modernism,” which has become very fashionable among intellectuals over the past decade, is largely concerned with the elusive nature of meaning, which is at the very heart of language. If I understand correctly what they are saying, the dominant conception is that language is almost infinitely malleable, flowing, subjective, constantly open to interpretation. Words are seen as conventions, symbols, whose meaning is determined not only by the author or speaker, but by each reader or listener in his own subjective hearing, reacting and “intertextual” associations with to it.

This is a far cry from the traditional Judaic understanding, in which the word is the carrier, if not the very embodiment, of the Divine Will. The word itself carries power and, as Sefat Emet puts it, is the very inner essence of the thing. This is also the reason, halakhically, for the stringent rules surrounding the utterance the divine name in vain, as well as of the power attached to words in the laws of Nedarim and Shevuot—vows and oaths. Is the lightness with which modern linguistic philosophy takes words as such merely a byproduct of secularization, or does it bode ill for the maintenance of a modicum of seriousness and dignity in our culture?


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