Sefer Devarim: Retelling the Story
Sefer Devarim (Deuteronomy), whose third parashah we read this Shabbat, differs from other books of the Torah in that it serves as a kind of recapitulation or re-presentation of the essential contents of the first four books. Structured as Moses’ farewell talks to the people, it is known in classical Rabbinic sources as Mishneh Torah, “the Second Torah or “repetition of the Torah”; interestingly, its name in Western languages, Deuteronomy, means much the same, being composed of the Greek deutero (“two” or “second”) and nomos (“law” or “word”). The great Hasidic teacher Sefat Emet, in an interesting image (Par. Devarim 5659, s.v. mishneh torah) says that Sefer Devarim bears the same relation to the rest of the Torah as the tefillin shel yad do to the tefillin shel rosh: whereas the tefillin shel rosh has four separate compartments, each with a single scroll (corresponding, as it were, to the other four humashim), tefillin shel yad has one long scroll containing the same four sections written one after another.
The first three or so parshiyot of this book contain exhortations to the people to keep the Torah and its commandments, to love and fear God, illustrated through various historical events that befell them on the way. The next three—Re’eh, Shoftim and Ki Teitsei—constitute a codex of laws, combining repetition of laws already found in the earlier books with new laws particularly pertinent to their new situation of dwelling as an autonomous people and society on its own land (more on that next week). The final parshiyot—five in number, but mostly very short—contain miscellaneous instructions, a ceremony of blessing and curses, a solemn admonition as to the dire consequences of disobedience to God’s commandments, Moses’ hortatorical “Song,” his final blessings to the twelve tribes, and an account of his death.
Given that so much of the material here is a recounting of events described earlier, it seems to me that a basic question one must ask oneself while reading thes4e chapters is: how is the story told here? How much of it is simple repetition, and in what ways, subtle or obvious, does the account here—the “twice-told tale,” to borrow a phrase from aggadah scholar Joshua Levinson—differ from that found in earlier books, and why? This question may be asked about the historical incidents related here and, in a somewhat different way, about the laws in Chapter 12 on. A few examples:
This week’s parasha contains the oft-quoted phrase לא על הלחם לבדו יחיה האדם, usually translated (e.g., in the King James Version), as “man does not live by bread alone.” This verse is most often understood as implying that man has spiritual needs—cultural, intellectual, emotional, intellectual and religious—and is not satisfied with simply having his belly filled. But the meaning of the verse in its original context here is very different. It is imbedded in a description of how God took the people Israel out of Egypt, guided them and sustained them in the desert, protected them from snakes and wild animals, miraculously preserved their clothing and shoes from falling apart. Here the Torah says, “He subjected you to hardship and to hunger, and feed you the manna which you did not know, nor did your fathers, so as to make known to you that man does not live by bread alone, but by everything that comes from the mouth of God man may live” (Deut 8:3). The message here is very different from the popular understanding mentioned above, and is in fact much narrower: God fed you in the desert with manna to teach you your dependence upon God, and that God can bring about things outside of the ordinary order of nature, feeding you, not with bread, but with a strange sort of stuff that appeared every morning out of nowhere, thereby displaying His power, His greatness, and His loving concern.
But that is not all. Turning back to the original account of the manna in Exodus 16, we find a rather different picture. To begin with, of course, the subject of the manna is introduced and described there at great length. The time is a few days after the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, and the matzot which the people baked in Egypt and took with them as their main food supply have presumably been finished; the manna is a special, miraculous form of food which God causes to appear in the field early in the morning, covered by dew, to feed the people. In this chapter the Torah mentions two religious lessons or rationales related to it, specifically (apart from the general idea that there is nothing to eat in the desert, including the wheat from which one ordinarily makes bread). First, “that I may test them, [to see] if they will walk in my Torah or not” (Exod 16:4). It was at this point, at a place called Marah, that the people were commanded to observe the Shabbat (this is only stated explicitly in a midrash at Sanhedrin 56b, but one based on a clear logical inference), and not gather the manna on the Shabbat day; in order to assure that they would have enough to eat on Shabbat as well, a double portion of manna fell on Fridays. This was, if you will, a kind of harbinger of the idea of Friday as a day of preparation for Shabbat. Some people nevertheless went out into the field on Shabbat to look for manna, angering the Lord, who asks rhetorically “How long will you refuse to observe My commandments and teachings?!” (16:28). Secondly, the manna was a means of assuring the people “that you may know that the Lord has taken you out of the land of Egypt” (16:6 ff.); significantly, the language used here is similar to that used about the plagues in Egypt. Thus, the allusion to the meaning in our verse is not only far briefer—a half-sentence reminder of something described in considerable detail in the original telling—but also infers a rather different religious lesson than that given there.
Another example: the incident of the Golden Calf. Here, the retelling of the story in our parashah is more elaborate, spanning more than thirty verses (Deut 9:8–10:10), as is only fitting for what was seen as the traumatic event of the post-Exodus period, the watershed in which the people were exposed in all their faults and insecurities. The sin of the Calf put an end to the illusion that the people might simply accept the Torah, worship the one true God, build the Tabernacle, and live a happy and pious life forever after. Indeed, the Midrash even sees the Sin of the Calf as a kind of reenactment, on the collective level, of the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden, with analogous consequences for the unfolding of sacred history.
But here too, while the story is retold at some length, it is nevertheless far more concise than in Exodus 32–34, and omits numerous incidents that are ultimately tangential to the basic moral. Aaron’s role is nearly non-existent, alluded to in but a few words (9:20); the graphic account of the making of the calf, the people’s worship thereof involving an orgiastic festival, Joshua’s exchange with Moses about the shouts heard from the camp, the role of the Levites—all these colorful elements are absent. There is basically nothing but God, Moses, and the people. The account is introduced by the phrase, “You are a stiff-necked people; Remember, do not forget, how you have infuriated the Lord from the day that you went out if Egypt… and at Horeb you infuriated Him…” (Deut 9:6-8); and later, “… You have been rebellious against the Lord since the day that I knew you….” (9:24). The essential point is that throughout the desert period the people showed a propensity to throw off God’s yoke, and time and again were only saved by God’s compassion overcoming His fury (a subject noted in the Daf Yomi for this past week, where God, so to speak, prays to Himself that His mercy may overcome his rage, and is blessed in a similarly vein by R. Yishmael b. Elisha; see Berakhot 7a). All this requires no little intervention by Moshe, whose “falling before the Lord” in prayer and supplication for forty days and nights is noted in three separate verses (9:18; 9:25; 10:10).
This message of the people’s general rebelliousness and disobedience may explain an anomaly I found in this account: that the retelling of the Calf story is interrupted several times by seemingly extraneous material—at 9:22–24 (which also mentions Tav’erah, Masah and Kivrot ha-Ta’avah, and the Spy incident) and again at 10:6–9—and then resumed. If the main purpose is to us e the rebellion ”at Horeb” as one example of repeated behavior, then the digression, or at least the former one, are part of the story (although I am hard put to understand what 10:6-9 is doing here.)
A second anomaly, a detail not mentioned at all in Exodus 32–34, is the making by Moses of an ark of wood in which to place the two stone tablets which he made, containing the Ten Commandments. In Exodus 25:10-16, the ark is made as part of the larger project of building the Tabernacle; while it is made of wood, it is overlaid and inlaid with gold; and it is made by Bezalel. This point requires further study.
One could add cite further examples: most notably, that of the incident of the Spies, which was a crisis comparable in gravity to the Sin of the Calf (compare Deut 1:22-40 with Numbers 13–14). But due to lack of space I will not conduct that comparison here, but leave it to the inquisitive reader to figure out for him/herself. I trust that the examples I have brought will suffice to illustrate the dramatic ways in which their retelling in Deuteronomy sheds new light on familiar stories.
PS to Vaethanan: More On Torah Study, Haredim ,etc.
1. Haredim. Last week I strongly criticized the public policy of the Haredi leadership. It is important nevertheless to know that their exclusive, even fanatical focus on building up full-time Torah study has its roots in a certain perception of Jewish history, and was not originally motivated by the desire for power, money or political influence. The Haredim—certainly such figures as the Brisker Rav, the Hazon Ish, and Rav Aharon Kutler, all now ztz”l—were motivated by the trauma of Holocaust. Prior to the Shoah, for several centuries, Eastern Europe had served as a center of Torah learning possibly unprecedented in Jewish history, being the home and center of influence of an impressive array of geonei Torah (although numerically fewer than the nearly 100,000 bakhurim learning today). Some escaped, but many of the greatest talmidei hakhamim and their students were killed; in any event the centers were destroyed, and those that survived had to recreate Torah institutions in new places, starting from scratch. Thus, the idea of rebuilding what had been lost became a single-minded obsession.
Regarding the survival of Torah life during the Holocaust: it is worth mentioning in particular the remarkable story of Yeshivat Mir, whose students were given visas by the Japanese vice-consul to Lithuania, Chiune Sugihara, a true righteous Gentile. which escaped en masse through Russia on the Trans-Siberian railroad, crossed from Vladivostok to Japan, and from there crossed back to the mainland where they settled for the duration of the war, establishing a yeshiva in Shanghai; later many of the “Shanghai Mirrers” were among the major Torah teachers and leaders during the latter half of twentieth century. I was privileged to know and even work alongside some of these men, and they were truly remarkable individuals.
2. About kevi’at itim la-torah, having fixed time for Torah study: Daf Yomi is but one of many options. There are those who criticize the Daf Yomi because the pace is too fast and does not allow for study in depth. There are many people who study Talmud every day (or several times a week, or regularly on Shabbat afternoon), covering however much or little as they may do in the time set aside for this, on their own or in small study groups in their synagogue, pursuing digressions and questions that arise during the course of study. Or one may study Mishnah, or halakhah, or Tanakh, or the weekly Torah portion (whose study, or reading through, is an obligation of sorts), or some text in Jewish thought. There are many who focus on Jewish mysticism—Zohar, Kabbalah, or Hasidut—although I would express some reservations about making it one’s exclusive diet, notwithstanding my own love of and interest in these areas. The main thing is that one study Torah every day.
I would also add that, given the wide variety of people in the Jewish religious community, in terms of level, textual ability and language, one may also study Torah in English (or in any other language with which one is comfortable); albeit, I believe that one who wishes to take his/her Judaism seriously should make efforts to learn Hebrew, at least to read texts in the original.
3. Women and Torah Study. A sharp-eyed reader from Switzerland noted that I glossed over a problematic aspect of this subject: namely, that the texts I quoted, such as Rambam, speak of women as being exempt, or even prohibited, from studying Torah; that the obligation to study devolves specifically on men, and that of teaching on fathers vis-à-vis their sons. I would respond by saying, first, that the halakhah was formulated in a strongly gender-differentiated society. The world in which we live is one in which women are involved in virtually all professions and realms of cultural endeavor, and have their share of attainments. This includes women’s involvement in Torah study, which has blossomed in recent decades, and there are a number of outstanding women scholars (one of whom, Devora Steinmetz, made the Siyyum ha-Shas I mentioned a few issues ago). Certainly, I believe there is a halakhic solution that allows for such change: women may take mitzvot upon themselves—Torah study, thrice-daily prayer, tefillin, etc. Much has been written on this subject, and this is not the place to elaborate upon it.
NOTE Interested readers are referred, inter alia, to my study on women as rabbis, Kuntres Semikhat Nashim, in HY II: Beha’alotkha [Haftarot] and the published version in To Be a Jewish Woman, II [Kolekh Conference Volume], where I bring further bibliography.