Parashat Devarim 5781

15 July 2021 – 6 Av 5781

Rabbi Danny Rich


Devarim, the Hebrew word meaning ‘things’ or ‘words’,  is both the name of the Book of Deuteronomy, the fifth and final Book of Moses, and of its first parashah.

It opens with the following ironic declaration since when Moses was summoned by God for leadership he declined and one of the reasons given  was that he was not a ‘man of words’ (Exodus 4: 10):

These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan.

What follows is allegedly Moses’ final address to the Children of Israel whom he has led for more than 40 years from slavery in Egypt to the borders of Canaan, the Promised Land.

The work of eleven parashiot may be divided into three sections.  In the first Moses reviews the history of the Israelites wandering in the desert, with an emphasis on their disobedience and ingratitude.  The core of Deuteronomy is a legal code in which Moses looks forward to the type of monotheistic, just society which the Children of Israel will create after the conquest of Canaan under the leadership of Joshua.  The final –and undoubtedly most moving – third part finds Moses in more reflective mood as he prepares for his own death with a poetic elegy, bequeathing to his people both warning and hope.

Parashat Devarim is essentially a prologue in which Moses reminds his audience that the Children of Israel might have entered the Promised Land a generation earlier were it not for an early example of Israelite disobedience. (Deuteronomy 1:6-41).  Given a second chance after a return to the desert (1:42-2:1), the Israelites begin their procession to Canaan via Seir (2:2-8) and Moab (2:9-16), culminating in military victories over Sichon (2:31-3:1) and Og (3:2-26).

Parashat Devarim affirms at its outset a major theme of Jewish theology that unequivocal monotheism of Judaism arises from the historical encounters with God by the Jewish people rather than by silent retreat, intellectual speculation or ‘out of body or mind’ experiences.

If Deuteronomy is purportedly merely a recitation of what has gone before, it is clear that what might draw interest would be anything new.  Its focus is, of course, different from the previous four Books of Moses (Genesis with its pre- history and foundation myths, Exodus, Leviticus which is a manual for the priests of the Temple, and Numbers which narrates desert living) because Moses must now deal with the imminent situation of the Israelites who will become conquerors, occupiers and residents of a new territory.  The task will be to create a new, settled community centred round a monotheism underpinning a society and state with an ethical means of operation.

In terms of the development of Judaism, Deuteronomy is arguably the most influential of the books of Torah.  It deals most explicitly with beliefs and attitudes (theology), it contains the Shema (the central piece of Jewish liturgy in 6:4) and affirms public reading of religious literature (31:11), and provides proof texts for rituals of daily living including mezuzot (6: 8-9 and 11: 18,20), tzitzit (22:12) and kashrut (11:3-20).  Finally, Deuteronomy includes a raft of ethical legislation and a second version of the Ten Commandments (5:6-18), the first being in Exodus 20:2-14.

For all these gifts of the Book of Deuteronomy, this writer is most intrigued by the twelfth chapter.  The previous books of Torah identify many different local stones, altars or shrines where early examples of worship may have include offerings, dance, music or words.  In a chapter which demands that on occupation of the Land Canaanite and other pagan sites must be destroyed, a single Jewish site of sacrifice (12:4) is ordained:

Do not worship the Eternal your God in the like manner {local shrines and images} but look only to the site that the Eternal your God will choose amidst all your tribes as the Divine habitation, to establish the Divine name there.  There you are to go, and there you are to bring your burnt offerings and other sacrifices, your tithes and contributions, your votive and freewill offerings, and the firstlings of your herds and flocks.  Together with your households, you shall feast there before the Eternal your God, happy in all the undertakings in which the Eternal your God has blessed you.

The historic centralisation of the cult will require a study of King Josiah who ascended the throne of Judah as an eight year old in 640 BCE and was assassinated in 609 BCE and an introduction to the prophetess, Huldah.  These must wait a future occasion.

Meanwhile, with less than a fortnight before Covid regulations are ended and as Liberal Jewish communities begin services and other activities in their communal homes, perhaps we might all do well to be ‘happy in all the undertakings in which the Eternal your God has blessed you’.

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