Parashat Devarim 5779

Rabbi Cantor Gerson Silins – 9 August 2019

The Torah reading for this week is Devarim, the first weekly reading in this last book of the Torah, also called Devarim; in English, Deuteronomy. The Book of Deuteronomy has two Hebrew names, Sefer Devarim, which comes from a contraction of its opening phrase, and Mishne Torah, or Repetition of the Torah, from which the English name Deuteronomy – “Second Law” – is taken. The entire book of Deuteronomy is the fifth and last book of the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, the central document of Judaism. But there are good reasons to distinguish it from the earlier books. Although some of its passages duplicate elements found elsewhere in the Torah, no less than 70 of the approximately 100 laws in Deuteronomy are absent from the earlier books. These laws focus on arrangements for living on the land that the Israelites are about to enter. There is an emphasis on a central sanctuary, which will be chosen by God. These are things that the people did not need to know prior to their entry to the land.

This book offers a developing view of the nature of God. It clearly and powerfully advocates for monotheism, and emphasizes exclusive loyalty to God, and God’s love, justice and transcendence. Here, God is no longer a personal deity for the individuals or family groups that characterized God of Genesis, or the most powerful God of many gods that we see in Exodus. This vision of God is spiritual, not physical. It is God’s name that dwells in the sanctuary, not God as a personal presence. There is a clear theological development. It is in Deuteronomy that the sacrificial system is limited to a single sanctuary, reducing and controlling it, beginning to centre the relationship of the people to God on study and ritual observance. Many elements that are central to later Jewish tradition are to be found in this book, including the Shema and the public reading of the Torah. It is here that we find the mezuzah, tefillin and tzitzit. Its emphasis is intellectual, with a requirement to study God’s laws. More crucially, it is in Deuteronomy that we find the idea that religious life is based on a sacred text and the study of that text. This may indeed be the most revolutionary thing in this book. It requires us as Jews not to be satisfied with revealed religious knowledge, but rather to delve deeply into the study of the one sacred text. Of course, the process of study of that one text led to the proliferation of sacred texts, including the rest of the Hebrew Bible, the Mishnah, the Gemara, and the interpretation of all of those as well. This engagement with sacred text has constituted Judaism for millennia and is at the core of it still today. As modern Jews we may seek spiritual enlightenment and direct experience of the transcendent. But Jews are always brought back into an intense engagement with text.

This can be frustrating. Lawrence Hoffman speaks of this in The Art of Public Prayer: Not for Clergy Only. He says that a group of people practising Judaism together is not just a group – there is also a spiritual dimension to what its members do, and without it, their actions are empty. There must be a link not just among the members as they conduct a worship service or any synagogue activity, but also a link to the transcendent. The worshipping group must ‘bond the worshippers together in such a way that the sense of their ultimate shared identity is linked somehow to the Ultimate Power we call God.’ Hoffman tells of a woman who was completely connected to her American Conservative congregation, knowledgeable and observant. But ultimately, she found no overriding spiritual element in her Jewish observance, and converted to Christianity, where she found that most of the discourse was about God and spirituality.

The Jewish focus on text and study may be frustrating for some, but not for me. For the last five years, I have been studying in the rabbinic program at Leo Baeck College, from which I was ordained as a rabbi in July. For me, the emphasis on the study of text is unabashedly the most central connection I have to Judaism. Of course, as a cantor, some of the texts I study might be musical ones. Study, the engagement with the text, is a form of spirituality for me, perhaps the principal one. I know that it is not the same for everyone. But for those of us who have a primary relationship to Jewish life through study, the Book of Deuteronomy, which we begin to read this week, has given us a great gift.

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