You know when you watch a television program, how there is always that voice-over at the beginning that tells you “here’s what you missed” or “previously on our show”? And how, before the season finale, there’s also usually a show that gives you the highlights of the season, so if you haven’t been watching all along, you can enjoy the season ender? Well, parashat Devarim is that recap of the series known as “The Torah.”
This week’s parasha begins the book of Devarim, the book of Deuteronomy. The Hebew “devarim” refers to the words of Moses, which constitute not only the majority of our parasha, but the majority of the last book of the Torah entirely. The English name for the book, Deuteronomy, gives a better sense of its content – the “repetition of the Torah.” So, if you haven’t been following the series and have just tuned in for the finale, Moses is about to give a recap of the story, from the Exodus from Egypt, through the wanderings, the kvetching, the rebellions, all of the peoples the Israelites met and fought with along the way, and the fact that The Holy One was with us, through it all.
At the end of the forty years of desert wandering, Moses stands before the people of Israel, right as they are poised to enter the land of Israel. Moses now addresses a new generation, the children of those who left Egypt and who wandered the wilderness.
He must prepare them for life in the promised land, and as such, the book of Deuteronomy adds many more commandments about living in the land that God promised our ancestors, things that the previous generation of the wilderness did not need to know.
It is worth noting that in our parasha, Moses also tells this new generation about the wanderings and experiences of the one before it: as Jews we have a profound sense of our own history, and here it begins. The slave generation of the Exodus must die out before the new, free Israelites are prepared to enter the land, but their memory and their story must not die. Their story is our story, and before we can take possession of the land, we must remember it.
The book of Deuteromony, which we always begin reading on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av also has a very clear-cut theology which foreshadows the events of destruction that occurred on that day. On the cusp of our entrance into the land that God promised us, we are reminded of the conditions of that promise: by choosing to keep the law, the people are told, they will merit untold blessing. But, if they choose to ignore the law and disobey, a long series of retributions is their fate. Many of these laws in Deuteronomy are humanitarian and detail how we are to act towards one another. Yes, there are many ritualistic mitzvot reflecting our relationship to God – the Shema as well as the mitzvot of tallit and tefillin are commanded in Deuteronomy. But yet, the focus is on how we treat one another.
On the eve of Tisha B’Av, on which our Temple was destroyed and Jerusalem brought to ruin, traditionally thought to be because of acts of needless hatred of one Jewish person against another, the theology of the book we begin reading this Shabbat eerily resonates. It is our actions and how we treat each other that reflect our partnership with God. When we do not act as if each one of us is in the image of God, and we do not treat each other with respect, tolerance, and understanding, we let each other, and we let God down.
Rabbi Cece Beyer