At the end of the second act of The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Hamlet designs a clever trap, a custom-written play-within-a-play, in the hope that its actors will lead Denmark's treacherous King Claudius to indict himself in the plot that killed Hamlet's father. Hamlet stands alone on stage and delivers one of Shakespeare's best-known monologues:
O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!
Is it not monstrous that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit
That from her working all his visage wann'd,
Tears in his eyes, distraction in's aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? and all for nothing!
(The Tragedy of Hamlet, 2.2.575-583)
Hamlet seizes upon the actor as a symbol of how effortlessly people can utter hollow words and how easily human emotion can be faked. But we cannot avoid detecting some irony behind the fury: when we hear these words in performance, we become instantly aware that Hamlet's lines are themselves spoken by an actor feigning emotions he does not own. Functionally speaking, at least, the man who portrays the actor lampooned by Hamlet is no different from the one playing the Dane himself.
Shakespeare's wry decision to put these words into an actor's mouth has a more stinging result, however: it proves Hamlet right about the artifice of human language. The marvelous plasticity of our words comes at the expense of reliable meaning; for all their subtlety, the power of words often falls short of that which emerges from immediate personal experience.
How, then, are we to approach Deuteronomy, which we encounter for the first time again this week? How can we be moved emotionally by this book whose content is basically limited to a sprawling monologue delivered by Moses? The rest of the Torah's plot, which careens across countless centuries and miles, from Ur to Haran, from Egypt to the edge of the Promised Land, screeches to a halt in Deuteronomy. The people Israel stands immobile at the banks of the Jordan while Moses deliberately recounts the history of the previous four books, in this lengthy final episode called D'varim: simply, "Words."
Reading Deuteronomy is a very different experience from reading the rest of Torah. Here, the omniscient narrator of the earlier books has vanished, replaced abruptly by Moses's subjective voice. Deuteronomy, as its Greek name indicates, is a second telling: Moses's own reiteration of earlier events. In this book, we experience the Jewish past only through Moses's narrow perspective, which frustrates and disorients us at times. And yet it is this particular characteristic of Deuteronomy that makes it deeply relevant and meaningful for the formation of spirituality in a postbiblical diaspora.
Just like the ancient Israelites on the banks of the Jordan, we modern readers are forced for the first time in Deuteronomy to view Jewish history through a veil, compelled to know God only through the words of Moses and not through firsthand experience. Our sense of alienation must have been shared by our postexilic ancestors as well. Like them, we are far from the original Israelite experiences of slavery and redemption, apostasy and revelation, redemption and homecoming. The smoke from the Temple altar may as well be as distant from us as Sinai's brimstone. All we have left are words, the well-rehearsed mantras of our people's triumphs and tragedies. Absent burning bushes and flaming mountaintops, we are left, in Hamlet's words, "frighted with false fire" (Hamlet, 3.2.277).
And yet our awe is real. Despite the artifice of Deuteronomy's story-within-a-story, the words of Torah touch and inspire us in ways that are pure and authentic. This, after all, is what Jewish life is all about-for us no less than for Moses himself-feeling at home within our stories as we do nowhere else.
Even so, this terrain is not entirely familiar. Deuteronomy's strange revision of the Israelite epic vexes and challenges us. It is by turns befuddling, subversive, and infuriating. How did Deuteronomy's authors and editors make their seemingly arbitrary choices about what to include and what to exclude, what to emphasize and what to diminish in this book? Why does Moses spend so much time reciting poetry and so little offering concrete religious guidance? And perhaps most importantly, what vision of Jewish existence motivated these otherwise inscrutable choices?
During our exploratory journey together through this book over the coming months, we will have before us the demanding yet sacred task of forging spiritually significant lives from Deuteronomy's words. But our work, let us not forget, is Moses's work too: the responsibility of making painstaking and deliberate choices, of deciding what to maintain and what to discard, in order to manifest ultimate meaning in the world.
The first verse of Deuteronomy opens this way: Eileh had'varim asher diber Mosheh el kol Yisrael b'eiver hayardein, "These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan." The verse's two prepositional phrases (el kal Yisrael, "to all Israel" and b'eiver hayardein "on the other side of the Jordan") contain complementary truths to guide us as we begin our reading together. First, they remind us that the Torah now only can be viewed from a diaspora perspective, here on the west side of the Jordan. But second, they insist that every one of us-all Israel-must continue learning from our teacher Moses. We who live in the world beyond the Bible continue that ancient radical quest for truth. Day by day, we make religious choices about law and lore, peoplehood and nationhood. Those choices emerge from the spirituality we inhabit, even as they combine to fortify it. This endeavor, this glorious Jewish pilgrimage through sacred words, is the best way we know to approach the mystery of God. Thus, despite Hamlet's protestations, this quest will never be "all for nothing." I look forward eagerly to continuing our journey together.
Rabbi Oren J. Hayon is associate rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, Texas. He received his undergraduate education at Rice University, and received rabbinical ordination from the Cincinnati campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 2004. Rabbi Hayon welcomes feedback from readers at email@example.com.