Does Deuteronomy merely teach us history or does it inspire and shape the future? As we begin the fifth and final book of the Torah, Sefer Devarim, we find much repetition from earlier. Once again, the detailed list of desert wandering stops are described. It is largely filled with laws, many given before including another version of the Ten Commandments.
Traditionally, the entire book is considered Moses’ final discourse to the Jewish people. Unable to cross over the Jordan River and lead them into the land of Israel, Moses turns over the leadership to his disciple, Joshua. Deuteronomy is seen as Moses’ final sermon or ethical will, sharing his perspective on the most influential events, lessons and laws; a final lasting teaching opportunity for the next generation to carry into the land.
Another perspective sees this book’s focus on law as the transition point from wandering nomadic tribe following a Divine Cloud to a settled nation with a clear set of rules to follow to maintain an ethical and moral society. Moses repeats (perhaps even reinterprets) the previously given instructions and presents G-d’s new laws as the guide to building a just society.
A third interpretation is Moses needed to reteach the commandments to the Jewish people. During the 40 years of wandering in the desert, the Israelites spent much of their time complaining and sinning. They had forgotten so many of G-d’s instructions and commandments. Deuteronomy is his opportunity to once again teach the next generation of Israelites who would be poised to enter the land.
Deuteronomy is not a history book for us. In fact, until recently there was no Hebrew word for history. For Jews, there is a difference between history and memory. As the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks explained in his haggadah: “History is an event that happened (some other time) to someone else … that can deepen knowledge. Memory is something that happened to me and is part of who I am. Memory is the past as present, as it lives on in me.”
In the Book of Numbers, the people lost their way, forgot and lost sight of the highest Jewish values that guided them. That is why the word zachor, remember, is repeated over and over in Deuteronomy. Devarim is our story that reminds us of our legacy, path and purpose. In these changing pandemic times, we must ask ourselves the same themes of Devarim: What have we forgotten in the pandemic and what must we now remember and relearn to continue our legacy and live with purpose?
Rabbi Hal Rudin-Luria is a rabbi at B’nai Jeshurun Congregation in Pepper Pike.