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Devarim - Devarim

We have arrived at the book of Devarim, literally “words”. Moshe, the man who we noted in parashat Chukat said לֹא אִישׁ דְּבָרִים אָנֹכִי “I am not a man of words”, suddenly cannot stop speaking.

However the Latin name for Devarim, is Deutoronomy, meaning “second law”, which is derived from another Hebrew name for the book, “Mishneh Torah” - second Torah (or second law or teaching), because in this book Moshe summarises the story of the people to date.

But curiously, Devarim is far from being a recap of the first four books of Torah. Nothing is repeated from Bereishit. Very little is repeated of the big features we might expect (there is no Exodus from Egypt here, no mention of the Mishkan). Scholars have suggested that instead, Moshe tells a version which the people actually need to be reminded of - the journeys, the struggles, the victories.

Underlying everything is a threefold agenda: first, the people can’t mess up in the way they’ve already messed up. Next, to think practically about how to set up a society in Eretz Yisrael. And last, an attitude of “yes we can”!

While we’ll see all these themes play out in the coming weeks, I’d like to focus in on one moment that Moshe somewhat surprisingly chooses to include:

“Thereupon I said to you, “I cannot bear the burden of you by myself… How can I bear unaided the trouble of you, and the burden, and the bickering!” (Devarim 1:9-12)

Here Moshe retells the episode of his father in law Yitro insisting that he delegate more and carry less of a burden, but it is also reminiscent of the number of breakdowns that Moshe experiences (“...I cannot carry all this people by myself, for it is too much for me. If You would deal thus with me, kill me rather, I beg You, and let me see no more of my wretchedness!” Bemidbar 11:14-15).

Why would Moshe choose to omit the Exodus from Egypt yet include his own crisis in this re-telling? Rav Alex Israel, who has taught our community, has the beautiful idea that Moshe was communicating his own dispensability. In this book, Moshe’s swansong, when he could easily have glorified the memories that the people would have of him, Moshe instead choses vulnerability. And his purpose, suggests R.Alex, is to prepare the people for a future without him.

Sometimes we re-tell stories to give new meaning to the past in light of the approaching future.

After Shabbat we will sit on the ground in our garden (all welcome but because of the mourning customs of Tisha b’Av, it’s the only day of the year where you will not receive an explicitly warm welcome at Kehillat Nashira!) and we will read the book of Eicha by candlelight. The Megilla is devastating in its tales of failure and suffering, but its closing words are: השיבנו יהוה אליך ונשובה חדש ימינו כקדם “Take us back, O LORD, to You, And let us come back; Renew our days as of old!”

Both in Devarim and in Eicha, we use stories to look back on our past, to shine light on our present, and ultimately to pave the path for a better future.


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