The neverending Torah — parshat Devarim

The neverending Torah — parshat Devarim

Congregation Kol HaNeshamah, Englewood, Conservative

It often seems that the most important things to be said come at the very last minute. Psychotherapists often observe that the most important insights, the heart of the matter, often surface only at the very end of a session with a client. On Yom Kippur we include an extra service, Neilah, as a final chance for prayer and outpourings of the soul before the gates close.

Moses, the leader of the Jewish people through their 40 years of wandering in the desert, also finds himself with words to share in the final hour.

In Parashat Devarim, Moses addresses the entire community of Israel as they stand poised on the border of the promised land at the end of their journey together. Over the course of the book, Moses will recount the journey thus far and the challenges encountered, review the commandments, and offer words of encouragement and wisdom for the community for the next stage of their travels.

The common name of the book in English, “Deuteronomy,” means second law. At first glance, the book is a repetition or retelling of the events described in the first four books of the Torah. But might it be more than that?  Readers of the Torah throughout the centuries have noticed the many ways in which Moses’s account in Devarim diverges from that of the earlier books of the Torah. Is he adding onto the Torah? Offering further explanation? Is this an alternate version of events?

Moses’s task is not merely one of repeating what has already occurred. Our parasha offers a hint that something different is taking place here: “On the other side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses undertook to expound this Teaching.” (Deuteronomy 1:5)

Typically, the Torah describes Moses as speaking to the people of Israel. Here, the Hebrew word used to describe Moses’s actions is “be’er,” which means to expound or explain. Moses is clearly engaged in something deeper than simply reiterating what has already been said.

The medieval commentator Rashi offers an explanation from the midrash that this meant that Moses explained the Torah in the 70 languages of the world. Moses’s ability to explain and elucidate in all these languages can be traced back to the moment when God first appears to him in the form of a burning bush and commands him to go to Pharaoh. Initially, Moses tries to refuse his mission, claiming that he is not a man of words (Ex. 4:10). According to the midrash, Moses is concerned that without fluency in the seventy languages spoken in Pharaoh’s court, he cannot possibly be taken seriously. The midrash highlights the contrast between Moses’s initial hesitation with his ability to expound the Torah in 70 languages at the end of the 40 years of wandering in the desert: “The mouth that said (in Ex. 4:10), “I am not a man of words,” then said (in Deut. 1:1), “These are the words.” (Midrash Tanchuma, Devarim 2:1).

Expanding on this idea, the chasidic master Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev asks: why did Moses expound the Torah in 70 languages at this particular moment? R’ Levi Yitzhak explains that there are a number of instances when the Torah incorporates words from other languages. He says that even though the community assembled at Mount Sinai originally heard the Torah given in the Hebrew language, God foresaw that the Jewish people would find themselves living among other peoples and speaking different languages. God wove words from other languages into the Torah itself to familiarize the Jewish people with those languages. This would remind us that we are not in a totally foreign environment and offer encouragement to survive and thrive wherever we are.

The midrash and Levi Yitzhak’s reading of Parshat Devarim offer us the profound teaching that the Torah is meant to be portable; it is adaptable by design. It can be interpreted anew in every generation, in every language, to speak to the Jewish people wherever we find ourselves. The inheritance that we call Torah is always in a state of growth, translation, and interpretation.

Parshat Devarim invites us to immerse ourselves in Torah and to bring our own voices and insights to its elucidation. Our Torah, the Torah of the future, emerges through this sacred encounter — in every place, in every language, and in every age.

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