Today's sedra is "Devarim", meaning "words", because the opening sentence starts: "These are the words which Moses spoke..." * It begins the fifth and last book of the Torah, also called "Devarim"--no coincidence, since every book of the Torah is named after the sedra which opens it.
In English we call it Deuteronomy, meaning the repetition--"Deutero" means "two"--and this name echoes another name the book has in Hebrew, "Mishneh Torah", approximately "second Torah." The word "Mishneh" also means "second in command"--in the last verse of Megilath Esther it says: *
"Mordechai the Jew is second to the king"--and in today's Israeli army, colonel means "Aluf" and lieutenant colonel, one rank lower, is "Aluf Mishneh". The collection of laws meant to supplement the Torah is similarly called the Mishnah, and of course, when Maimonides wrote a book about Judaism, to be used along with the Torah, he used again the old name "Mishneh Torah."
Why that stress on duplication?
Because in Devarim much of the story is repeated, even the ten commandments.
At this point, the story of the wandering in the desert is just about complete. In the sedra of "Pinchas" read two weeks ago, Moses is told by God to go up a certain mountain, see the promised land from afar, and die (Numbers, ch. 27, v.12). You would think that is the end of the story. And the last verse of "Bamidbar" (Numbers) finds the Israelites, and I quote, "In the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho." Again, you might think that this is the end, but it isn't, for there is another whole book.
What does this book contain? Many last speeches of Moses, his blessing of the tribes, his song, his warnings of terrible punishments if the people abandoned their God, and also a few more laws. It has some of the most poetic passages in the Torah. Still, much of it is retrospective, and was always viewed as standing somewhat apart from the rest of the Torah.
Indeed, the Jewish tradition maintains that the book of "Devarim" originated separately from all the rest. Chapter 23 in the book of Kings tells how king Yoshiah ("Josiah")--who was a "good" king, a strong supporter of Jewish tradition--how that king launched a big effort to refurbish the old Temple in Jerusalem. And in the middle of that activity of building, fixing and cleaning, suddenly, an ancient book is found, causing tremendous excitement. It is read to the king, and the king rends his garment, realizing how much the people have transgressed. He orders a wholesale destruction of the idols, and Passover is celebrated with such great fervor that the bible states "such a Pessach had not been not celebrated in Israel since the days of Samuel the prophet."
You read about it in the Haftarah for the second day of Pessach (p. 1012 in the Hertz Chumash), and the newly-found book is called there * "book of the covenant." The Haftarah contains only two brief excerpts from that story, and you should really look it up in the Book of Kings. Elsewhere in that book it is called "the book of Torah" * , while in the Book of Chronicles, where the same story is retold in more detail, calls it "The book of Torah by the hand of Moses" That, by the way, is the source of the phrase "be-yad Mosheh" which you will sing and hear in a short while, when the Torah is lifted.
What was that book? Our tradition holds it was the book of Deuteronomy, a book which did not tell much that was new, but reafirmed the scriptures. Of course there are also those who interpret the phrase " * " to mean the original Torah, written by the hand of Moses.
Whatever it is, Devarim has a unique story, and we begin it today with a recapitulation by Moses of what had happened in the 40 years since the Israelites left Mt. Sinai or as it is called here, Horeb. It is meant for the "generation of the desert, " the ones who never saw Egypt but were destined to enter the Holy Land, to remind them of all that had led up to this moment.
Author and Curator: Dr. David P. Stern
Mail to Dr.Stern: david("at" symbol)phy6.org .
Last updated 9 June 2002