As I prepare this commentary, it is early January, and we are reading through the first few parashiyot from the Book of Exodus. For three weeks, we have been following the dramatic story of Moses's emergence as a leader and his confrontation with Pharaoh. This week we will cross the sea, and celebrate our people's liberation.
Rereading the Book of Deuteronomy, I am struck by how little of this material from the first part of the Book of Exodus is included in Moses's last speeches to his people. While many stories from Exodus and Numbers are reproduced in Deuteronomy, they tend to be stories of failure, and not great achievement.
We see this from the very first parashah of Deuteronomy, which, like the book, is also called D'varim in Hebrew. The first parashah retells the story of the spies, stressing the wrongdoing of the people (Deuteronomy 1:19-2:1). The delegation of leadership and establishment of courts also is retold (Deuteronomy 1:6-18). And, a later parashah has a synopsis of the giving of the Ten Commandments, with special emphasis on the sin of the Golden Calf (Deuteronomy 9:6-10:5). But where are the wonders and miracles, the strong hand and the outstretched arm, except in passing mention? Where are Moses's glory days, the times of his triumph?
One might think of Moses's last speeches as being like a memoir, but if we think of the Book of Deuteronomy in that way, then Moses is a very unusual memoirist. In most memoirs, there is an element of self-aggrandizement, the selection of stories that reflect most positively on the writer, and which show off most flatteringly his or her best moments. Moses's great moments are not the focus of Deuteronomy.
Ancient histories tended to be written that way too, with a main character that is not an individual but a nation. Greek historians from the sixth century BCE, who some feel might have influenced the creation of our biblical text, were not writing history from a dispassionate perspective. Rather they were trying, in the words of The Oxford Bible Commentary, "to raise in their readers a consciousness of their own identify and a feeling that they were citizens of a great and noble race."1 While there are moments when Deuteronomy stresses the special qualities of the people of Israel, mostly it disparages them.
If Deuteronomy reads neither like a memoir nor a history, then what is it? And how does it fit in with the other books in the Bible?
Perhaps the most appropriate companion for Deuteronomy within the biblical canon is Ecclesiastes (Kohelet), which is also presented as the reflections of a successful leader at the end of his career. Here too, the stress is not on positive accomplishment, but on what is missing. While the books are diametrically opposite in their expressed theology, Deuteronomy (11:14) being confident that good deeds make the rain fall, and Ecclesiastes (11:3, 12:2) being sure they don't; still they share an underlying perspective and purpose.
In Ecclesiastes, the speaker Kohelet, understood by traditional sources to be King Solomon, reflects on the false prizes and insubstantial values that initially attracted him, but which he later rejected as not being the essential things in life. The tone of the book is critical, words of warning for those who might fall into the same traps.
The traditional Rabbinic understanding of Deuteronomy is also as a book of warning and rebuke. The Rabbis tie its opening words, eileh had'varim, "these are the words," to other texts, all critical of the Israelites:
"Did Moses prophesy nothing but these words? Did he not write the entire Torah, as it is said, 'And Moses wrote this Torah (Deuteronomy 31:9)?' Why then does the verse state, 'These are the words which Moses spoke'? " (Sifre).2
Sifre then provides four examples where a form of the phrase "eileh had'varim," is used to introduce words of rebuke. Two are from the prophets, Amos and Jeremiah, and two from words attributed to Kings David and Solomon.
Many people find Ecclesiastes depressing. Should we find Deuteronomy, another book of criticism, also a downer? Despite being a book of rebuke, to me, Deuteronomy is not unrelentingly pessimistic. Certainly, the recounting of the people's past sins is, in part, to make them regretful of what a stubborn and stiff-necked people they have been, but it is more than that. Moses's attitudes towards past misdeeds can in some way be compared to American inventor Thomas Edison's perspective on mistakes: "If I find 10,000 ways something won't work, I haven't failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward."3
As contemporary Christian commentator, Raymond Brown, noted in his book, The Message of Deuteronomy, "Our worst sins are not a total disaster, if we can learn something from them."4 If our tradition saw no hope of improvement, there would be no purpose in tochecha, "rebuke." In viewing us as worthy of criticism, our tradition indicates there is something positive about our human value and about the love that Moses felt for his people.
It is like a young member of our congregation who got her first job as a CPA. Initially she made a lot of mistakes, but she was encouraged because her boss would call her in, explain where she had gone wrong, and make her do it over and over until it was all right. She didn't love staying late day after day, but she rightly reasoned that if the boss didn't think she had the potential, the boss wouldn't have bothered offering this correction. In that sense then, Deuteronomy is an affirming text as in its criticism and rebuke it proclaims that we are worthy and have the potential to do better.
This week we begin a new book of the Torah. May we feel the love and hope underlying its words of criticism and rebuke.
1. John Barton, ed. and John Muddiman, ed., The Oxford Bible Commentary (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001) p. 39
2. Reuven Hammer, Sifre: A Tannaitic Commentary on the Book of Deuteronomy (New Haven: Yale University Press 1986), Piska 1, p. 23
3. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Thomas Alva Edison, U.S. inventor (1847-1931)
4. Raymond Brown, The Message of Deuteronomy (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1991) p. 134
Rabbi Melanie Aron is the senior rabbi at Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos, California. She has served on the URJ Board of Trustees and as chair of the URJ Committee on Adult Jewish Learning, and is involved in interfaith activities in her community.