I must confess that I do not have a great sense of direction. Thankfully, my new GPS offers me three choices of routes every time I enter a destination. In addition, I can customize my route based on whether I want to take highways or wish to avoid busy roads. And when I take a wrong turn or change my mind, the GPS simply reroutes my journey. Then there are times that I ignore the GPS and go the way that makes the most sense to me, based on my experience and knowledge after years of driving Virginia roads.
The process of studying Torah is very similar to the GPS experience. Many people confess that they do not have a great sense of direction when it comes to studying the Book of Deuteronomy, D’varim. This is perhaps the reason this “summer” book of Torah is the book least studied by modern Jews. It is our road less traveled. Yet, as we now embark on the study of the book together, perhaps we can find inspiration, and not fear, in the numerous routes available for our study. There are times when the literal word or words will move and inspire, and other times when scholarship and history will inform. There are times when the laws or theology will be comfortable for some, and problematic for others. Instead of worrying if we are approaching the text the “right way,” what if we challenge ourselves to embrace the unique wonders and opportunities revealed by each route? It is the journey that is sacred, not in spite of the path we take but because of it.
Our first path, emphasized from the outset of D’varim (Deuteronomy 1:1–3:22), understands Moses as our actual guide, speaking to us on the Arabah side of the Jordan River. This literal interpretation presents Deuteronomy as the only one of the Five Books of Moses that is mostly phrased in the first person as a direct address from Moses. This book has a prologue and epilogue that encase four sermons that Moses delivers to the people of Israel. As we travel along this route, we begin to feel close to Moses as we get to know him better through what he picks and chooses of memories and laws to impart to his people, to us. We also interact with Moses as a leader, and watch as he struggles to transition Joshua for what is to come. Choosing this route emphasizes Deuteronomy as a map for legal procedure, which contains most of the social justice laws we treasure as Reform Jews, and helps us find a path of personal observance that is meaningful to us.
Or we can choose a very different route, that of biblical criticism, which presents Deuteronomy less as the fifth in a series and more as a self-contained, literary whole, a “Torah” in its own right. This path presents Deuteronomy as thematically connected to the “book of the law” found in the time of King Josiah, as reported in II Kings, chapters 22 and 23, with the discovery of Sefer HaTorah, in 621 B.C.E. It explains why Deuteronomy is the only book of the Torah that employs the political and theological agenda of Josiah’s time. The attribution of the words to Moses is understood as a literary device used to establish credibility—a method common in this later time period. This is why scholars challenge the text’s statement that Moses is speaking from the east side of the Jordan, in the Arabah. It is more than likely that the text was written on the west—not the east—side of the Jordan. This path to Deuteronomy reveals a hidden window into a later time when our people already lived on the Land of Israel.
If we decide to explore the route focused on understanding the God of Deuteronomy, we first find a promise-keeping God. This is the God of the opening passages who fulfilled the pledge from Genesis, “The Eternal your God has multiplied you until you are today as numerous as the stars in the sky” (Deuteronomy 1:10). In this week’s portion, we find a parental God who provided for His children for forty years (2:7), but also admonished His people for losing faith (1:32; 34–5). For many Jews, the path to their own personal God is found in those passages where God, as parent, seeks a loving relationship with the Children of Israel. This is what is stressed in next week’s portion with the words, “You shall love the Eternal your God” (6:4 ff).
Finally, we find a warrior God in Deuteronomy who demands that His people be soldiers. This is the route that many modern readers avoid because they find it so problematic. This God of Deuteronomy goes into battle with and for the people, as we read: “None other than the Eternal your God, who goes before you, will fight for you . . .” (1:30) and “This day I begin to put the dread and fear of you upon the peoples everywhere. . .” (2:35). In the final line of this week’s portion we read, “Do not fear them, for it is the Eternal your God who will battle for you” (3:22). Yet, it is the very same God of battle, who is the source of so much discomfort, who also seems to provide hope and encouragement when Israel faces real threats from her neighbors. I recall reading this portion in Israel, when the war broke out in the summer of 2006. “The Eternal your God has given you this country to possess. You must go as shock-troops [chalutzim], warriors all, at the head of your Israelite kin” (3:18). Before our eyes, those “chalutzim” who fought for the Land in Deuteronomy became those who settle and defend the Land in modern times.
The other battle waged in this book is the assault against idolatry and cult practices that had found their way into the Temple itself and were eliminated by Josiah’s kingship. This avowedly monotheistic path is also central to Deuteronomy’s text, which emphasizes that God can be accessed in Jerusalem alone, and not from multiple locations, as in the other four books. The God of Deuteronomy does not share the hearts of His people with other gods.
Which route appeals to you? Why not try more than one? As we will study together, we will see that the beauty and richness of this last leg of our Torah’s journey is enhanced by taking multiple paths, and by seeing the vista of Torah from a variety of places and perspectives. Buckle up for a summer of adventure. It is going to be a fantastic ride!
How many factors come into play when we choose our path, when we engage the Book of Deuteronomy or another Jewish text? Our mood, intelligence, education, Jewish literacy, theology, needs, world events, attention span: a myriad of factors come into play. We come to the text ready to confront it but always on our own terms, and there is no taking the “me” out of my relationship with Torah.
In our first parashah, D’varim, Moses describes the travels and experiences of the Israelites in wilderness, and sets the stage for the instructions and laws that he will impart to them. He prefigures a later discussion of law with the guidance to “Fear no one, for judgment is God’s” (Deuteronomy 1:17).
But in a later verse, he provides what may seem to be a boilerplate example of Deuteronomy’s theology: “And now, O Israel, give heed to the laws and rules that I am instructing you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the Eternal, the God of your ancestors, is giving you” (4:1).
Heed the laws and you’ll get the reward: the gift of the Land. But what if you lived in Paris in the late thirteenth century? What would you make of this verse? This period saw the climax of the persecution of the Jews of France. For a hundred years, the Catholic Church, in collaboration with monarchs like Louis IX, sought to pressure Jews to accept Christianity. Jews were forced to listen to Christian sermons in their own synagogues. Their rabbis were subjected to public disputations with the cards stacked against them. A recalcitrant Jew could be burned in an auto-da-fe or martyred on the wheel as an example. Jewish wealth was confiscated and Jewish holy texts publicly were burned. The pressure to accept the faith of the church must have seemed unbearable.
How would a Parisian Jew of that time read our verse from Deuteronomy? The seventeenth-century collection of medieval polemics, Nizzahon Vetus, provides this interpretation: “The fear of God and His Holy Torah must not be changed for any other, for he has given us a true Torah . . .” (The Jewish-Christian Debate in the High Middle Ages: A Critical Edition of the Nizzahon Vetus, by David Berger, [Philadelphia: JPS, 1979], p. 228).
To the medieval Jewish mother, father, or teacher, this was a verse written to forestall the conversion of their adolescent sons, the most vulnerable and likely victims of pressures from the Church. How could they read this verse any other way?
We bring ourselves, our culture, our lives to the text and this powerfully influences the path we take in understanding it. Rabbi Perlin teaches how we choose a route, an approach to our text study that appeals to us. It may also be useful to consider the factors that lead us to make that choice.
D'varim, Deuteronomy 1:1–3:22
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,312–1,333; Revised Edition, pp. 1,161–1,173;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 1,037–1,062