Parsha Devarim – 5777

Parshat Devarim In-Depth

“These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan, in the desert, in the Aravah, opposite Suf, between Paran and Tofel, and Lavan, and Chatzerot, and Di-Zahav (Deuteronomy 1:1)

According to the Sifri, the numerous place names listed here are not landmarks indicating where Moses spoke these words—indeed, some of these places do not even exist as geographical locations. Rather, these are words of rebuke by Moses to the people of Israel. Instead of mentioning their sins outright, he alluded to them with these place names:

“In the desert”—the time they complained: “If only we would have died in the desert” (Exodus 17:3).

“In the Aravah (Plain)”—their worship of Baal Peor in the Plains of Moab (Numbers 25).

“Opposite Suf”—the trouble they made at the shores of Yam Suf, the Red Sea (see Exodus 14:11 and Rashi on Exodus 15:22).

“Paran”—the sin of the spies, who were dispatched from Paran (as recounted in Numbers 13 and later in our own Parshah).

“Tofel” and “Lavan” (meaning “libel” and “white”)—their libeling the white manna (Numbers 21:5).

“Chatzerot”—where Korach’s mutiny against Moses took place.

“Di-Zahav” (literally, “too much gold”)—the sin of the golden calf. (Sifri, Rashi, et al)”

Torah Sparks: Devarim 5777

“This Shabbat we begin Sefer Dvarim, Deuteronomy, the last book of the Torah. Sefer Dvarim records Moses’ words to the children of Israel in the weeks before he dies. Moses knows his role is almost over – he has been barred from entering the Land and his successor has been appointed. But this is no farewell speech marked by anecdotes or nostalgia; it is more an “ethical will.” Moses recounts the events since leaving Egypt 40 years earlier, reviews legal material the people should know upon entry into Eretz Yisrael, and warns them about the dangers to their faith in God, most particularly from material success and the arrogance that can come from that.”

Does God Command Going to War?

“After a five-verse introduction, Parashat D’varim is presented as the beginning of the text of a speech by Moses addressed to the Israelite people not long before his death. The content of this oration is historical: an overview of events experienced by the listeners or their parents, beginning after the Revelation at Sinai and continuing to the present. The events have already been narrated in earlier books of the Torah, but there are subtle shifts that make this not just simple repetition. If the original narratives are a source for history, the Deuteronomy oration is evidence for historical memory. This may be illustrated by focusing on one passage, relating to Sihon the Amorite, king of Heshbon.”

Retelling Our Story

“I was sitting in my study a few years ago with a couple who had been members of my synagogue for over 35 years. They were recounting a recent experience they had when celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, and it made me think about this week’s Torah portion.

The story they told me was typical: the husband had decided to surprise his wife by ordering a special 50th anniversary wedding cake, created to look exactly like the beautiful, long-flowing blue dress that she wore on their first date when they went to a dance at a local synagogue together. He smiled as he told me how his wife was certainly surprised, but not exactly the way he had expected. Following his grand flourish of presenting the cake and recounting the story of the dress and dance to the assembled guests, she smiled and replied that in fact her dress had been short and red — and their first date had been to the local county fair.”

Haftarah Devarim

“The opening chapter of the book of Isaiah marks the culmination of the three haftarot of admonition (T’lata d’Poranuta). Its first word also lends its name to this special Shabbat immediately preceding Tisha B’Av – Shabbat Hazon, literally, the ‘Shabbat of the Vision’. The book of Isaiah is popularly known for its messages of comfort and consolation but the haftarah for this special Shabbat is anything but comforting. It is a message of chastisement pure and simple, embodying the rabbinic tradition’s emphasis on scoring the nation for its own sin to account for its downfall. Its message is bleak and sobering, challenging the people both for their moral wrongs and for their abandonment of God.

It is hard to “feel the love” with accusations, even when warranted, like those found in Isaiah’s message: “children (banim) I have reared and brought up and they have rebelled against Me” (2); “a seed of evil doers, children (banim) that deal corruptly who have forsaken the Lord” (3). These words of admonition read like an indictment and seem more like a sign of abandonment than an attempt at rapprochement.”