Two passages from this week’s Torah portion, Devarim, jump out at me this week. One is a seemingly irrelevant but oft-appearing geographical reference, for example: “Across the Jordan in the land of Moab, Moses undertook to make this instruction clear” (Deuteronomy 1:5). The phrase B’ever haYarden, “across the Jordan, occurs several times in this Biblical book. But it raises a question about when and where the Book of Deuteronomy was written. Moshe presumably gave the speeches contained in this book from the east side of the river, obviously outside of the Promised Land. But the reference to the land of Moab being “across the Jordan” would reflect the perspective of someone who was on the west side of the river, already in the land!
The second passage that caught my eye–and on Shabbat morning will catch our ear–is part of Moshe’s retelling of the expansion of the judicial process, the need for more judges (1:12): “How shall I carry your stress and your burden and your quarrels by myself?” The word translated as “how” is Eikhah, which is the name of the scroll that is always read in the days following this Torah portion. It is, of course, the Book of Lamentations, the liturgical reading on Tish’ah B’av, the most mournful day on the Jewish calendar, and the verse is chanted in the same music.
Deuteronomy can strike us as a deeply mournful book. Moshe complains frequently that the Israelites are to blame for God’s decree banning him from the Land. The book contains severe punishments for major transgressions such as false prophecy and incitement to idolatry. Then there’s the admonition in chapter 28, a frightening litany of threats should the people ignore the covenant.
On the other hand, this is the book that describes Israel on the brink of fulfilling their national destiny. It’s full of beautiful passages that urge the reader to be grateful for God’s gifts. It’s the reason we say blessings after we eat. It’s the source of the Shema and the second rendition of the Decalogue (aka the Ten Commandments). How can this book be both so mournful and hopeful?
On Shabbat morning, I’ll share some of the scholarly thoughts about the origins of this complex book, and what we might learn from its varied tones.
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom,