Listen Again to the Final, Stirring ‘Words’ of Moses


Devarim, Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22

We wandering Jews are always on a journey. Each year, as we make our way though the summer months, we concurrently journey through the wilderness of Numbers. Now, at the end of July, we arrive at Deuteronomy, the final book of the Torah.

Like the first portion of every biblical book, this week's portion shares its name with the book itself. Devarim is the last portion we read before Tisha B'Av, the Ninth of Av, our annual observance of mourning for the destruction of the ancient Temple.

Many choose to fast on this day when we consider what we have lost, individually and collectively, over the course of the last year, over the course of our lives, over the course of our history. What is the connection between Devarim and this day of remembering?

Devarim means "words": Moses' last lectures, his final messages to the people Israel before he dies and they enter the promised land. The portion begins: Eleh ha-D'varim — "These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel … ." Thus, Moses begins the second telling, the repeated law, which is the Greek title of the book.

Scholar Ellen Frankel says in her The Torah: A Women's Commentary that "Unlike the previous four books of the Torah, which are narrated in the third person, Deuteronomy is narrated almost entirely in the first person — the 'I' of Moses persistently addressing a 'you.' However, the 'you' that Moses addresses is not always the same … ."

Professor Elsie Stern adds: "These words … are directed toward a double audience … the first, … within the biblical text, the people of Israel about to enter the Promised Land … . The second intended audience consists of the Israelites who were contemporaries of the authors of this opening part of Deuteronomy."

Frankel teaches that " … the word 'you' punctuates this parashah like a drumbeat, appearing more than 100 times in slightly more than 100 verses … . Throughout, Moses primarily focuses on his I-You relationship with the people." We contemporary readers join all those who have read these words through the ages as a third audience. Will we be an engaged — or a passive — audience to Moses' impassioned teaching? This year, as we encounter these words once again, will we be a "you" to Moses' "I"? How will we claim our place as a discrete "I" and as part of the collective "you"?

Of course, we Jews never encounter the text as an isolated "I". Thousands of years before the Internet and the creation of "virtual communities," we Jews have been reading — and studying — our sacred texts in company. The classic text Mikraot G'dolot, (literally, the "Great Writings," more often called the "Rabbinic Bible") invites us to read the biblical text along with notes, an alternative translation and commentary.

This tradition is carried forward in the Jewish Study Bible published by Oxford University Press. We Jews never read alone. When we actually sit with another in hevruta study, and when we study with a group, we are enriched by the added pleasure and challenge of face-to-face encounters.

This connection of "I" to "you" is a bridge to Tisha B'Av. Devarim urges us to listen anew to Moses' words, and to take our place as an active, responsive audience to his direction. Tisha B'Av addresses the spiritual homelessness that so many of us feel in these turbulent times, and offers language and companionship for the journey.

Our text and our calendar offer sacred words and sanctified community as responses to the losses that are inevitable in each of our lives. 

Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Ph.D., serves as the Worship Specialist for the Union for Reform Judaism.


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