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Devarim 5772

by Rabbi Yaakov Grunewald

This Shabbat has a special name: Shabbat Chazon.  It always precedes the Fast of the Ninth of Av and the name is based on the first word of the Haftarah which means THE VISION. It contains Isaiah's prophecy in which he warned Israel about the forthcoming catastrophe that was waiting to happen to the Kingdom of Judah. It is the third Haftarah which focuses on the destruction of Jerusalem at various critical periods during the time of the First Temple in the eighth and seventh centuries BCE.

The meaning of the name of today's Sidra is WORDS, which is, also, the name of the entire fifth book of the Torah. The name is based on the second word, but it also represents the contents of the book which comprises Moses’ last speeches to the Israelites before his death. The book has another name; Deuteronomy. This name is based on the Greek translation of the original ancient Hebrew name: MISHNEH TORAH. It means REPETITION, based on the fact that the book repeats, in general terms, many of the Commandments, which are mentioned in the earlier books. Why was the name Mishneh Torah discarded in favour of the name Devarim?  It seems that the MASORETES, the rabbis who supervised the Biblical text, preferred names derived from the words in the beginning of books. They must have felt that it was easier to remember them.

In verse 3 we are told that Moses began his first speech on the 1st day of the 11th month, which was later named Shevat. Thus, the entire book was spoken and written in the last 37 days of Moses’ life. He died on the seventh of Adar of that year. The Israelites mourned Moses for 30 days, made preparations for three days and crossed the Jordan on the 10th of Nissan.

Moses begins his speech in verse nine. He tells the Israelites that, right at the beginning of the journey, he complained to them that he couldn't lead them completely on his own because of their sheer numbers. Immediately after saying that he blesses them saying: “May the Lord, the God of your fathers multiply your numbers a thousand fold and bless you as he has spoken to you.” At this point, we come to the official end of the Cohen’s portion. The Masoretes, who fixed these breaks, always looked for positive sentences at which to conclude sections. This is one outstanding example. However, in recent times, a new custom has taken hold to conclude the first portion a verse earlier, which also contains a beautiful thought. The reason for this change is the fact that it was felt that it was wrong to begin the Levi’s portion with the word Eichah. This word, meaning HOW, is associated with sinfulness and tragedy and his son in the sad chant of the Scroll of Lamentations. Thus, we see how a new custom has been born. Most Chumashim don't mark this new break and I do not know by whom and when it was introduced.

By blessing the people with continued growth, Moses wished to emphasise that he was not actually complaining about their great numbers. He was only suggesting that it was causing him hardship. However, in the next sentence, he did reprimand the Israelites by saying that they were a quarrelsome nation. Indeed, he was suggesting that, maybe, if it had not been for their fractious character, he might have been able to lead them on his own, despite their size.

Although the appointment of judges in lower courts was done to relieve Moses of his burdens, the measure resulted in enormous benefits to the people. Hashem approved of the appointment of many judges in order to get every level of society engaged in the building of a just society. It also created a more equal society. Moreover, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein comments as follows: It give people the opportunity to aspire to greater influence. Whatever level these new leaders of judges attained, it was a stepping stone for future progress.  So we can apply to this episode the famous biblical dictum ME’AZ YATZA MATTOK. Something sweet came from a difficult situation.

Moses gave the new judges precise instructions.

  1. Don't discriminate between the citizen and the stranger.
  2. Don't differentiate between an important person and someone who is less important.
  3. When you give your decisions and mete out punishments, don't be afraid that someone will take revenge against you.
  4. Bear in mind, at all times, that true justice belongs to God; He is the supreme judge, and you are his representatives.
  5. If a very difficult case will come before you, bring it to me, and I will decide, either on my own, or on the basis of consultation with the Almighty.

In the second part of his speech in the second part of his speech, chapter 1, verse 22 Moses recounted to the new generation the tragic story of the mission of the 12 spies. It is particularly interesting to note that in this account it begins by telling them that the people themselves came up to him with a suggestion to send out 12 men to investigate the land. This detail is missing in the first account of the book of numbers. In this speech Moses main interest was to emphasise that the omission was due to Israel's lack of faith and this is the reason why it was bound to fail. He wanted to warn the new generation not to repeat the mistakes of the past. In fact, as we read the story of the conquest of the land which happened not long afterwards, we see that the new generation learnt from the mistakes of their fathers. First of all, they were much more obedient to Joshua, than the generation of the Exodus to Moses. Secondly, when they sent their own spies to Jericho, the report which they received was most positive and encouraging. The people went on to conquer the land with great confidence and trust in God.  Moses’ speeches, in this book, made an enormous impression on that generation as well as on the Jewish people for all times.

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