With this week’s parashah we begin Sefer Devarim, the final book of the Torah and the one referred to by the Talmudic rabbis as Mishneh Torah – a second Torah (see, for instance, Berakhot 21b, based on Deut 17:18). The Tosafot explain that the book of Devarim is referred to as such because “it reviews and repeats what came previously” (Tosafot on Gittin 2a). Most of the book consists of Moshe’s summation of the story of the Exodus from Egypt, the revelation at Sinai, and the Israelites’ desert wanderings. And yet as our parashah demonstrates, Sefer Devarim is more of an interpretation than a repetition, raising questions about the extent to which all memory is selective, all repetition is commentary, and, as William Faulkner famously put it, “the past is never truly past.”
Moshe begins his final address to the people by reviewing several episodes from the previous three books of the Bible, including the appointment of magistrates to help Moshe judge the people, the sending of spies to scout out the land of Canaan, and the journey through the lands belonging to the Moabites and Amorites. In each case, Moshe offers a slightly different take on these events than the one found earlier in the Torah. For instance, while in the book of Numbers it is God who tells Moshe to send out spies, here in Deuteronomy, Moshe states that it was the Israelites who had the idea to send out spies, implying that the people were to blame for the crisis of confidence that followed the spies’ return. Here as elsewhere, Moshe refracts the events of the past through the lens of his own perspective, commenting and critiquing rather than just repeating and reviewing. Perhaps it should not come as a surprise, then, that in introducing Moshe’s address, the Torah explicitly describes it as commentary rather than repetition: “On the other side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses undertook to expound (ba’er) this teaching” (1:5). Moshe is not merely chronicling all that came before, but “expounding” a teaching, interpreting the past so as to glean lessons and insights from it.
Invoking this verse, the Talmud in Sotah (35b) teaches that Moshe reviewed the Torah by inscribing its words on stones in the land of Moab so as to teach them to the people – sort of like writing on a giant blackboard for all the people to see and learn. The midrashic rabbis explain that Moshe told the people that he was near death, and so this was their chance to make sure they had learned the entire Torah. Anyone who had not mastered a particular verse, he told them, should come forward so that he might repeat that verse for them. To the extent that Moshe repeated the Torah in his final address, it was a repetition tailored to the specific needs of each individual, filling in the gaps in his or her memory. As these sources suggest, Moshe’s goal was not merely to repeat what had come before, but to ensure that the people had internalized the Torah’s lessons.
The rabbinic understanding of Sefer Devarim as Moshe’s attempt to teach and comment on Torah is also evident from the way the midrash reads the opening verses of the parashah. In the Sifrei, an early midrash from the first couple of centuries of the Common Era, the rabbis note the abundance of place names invoked in introducing Moshe’s address: “These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan, through the wilderness in the Aravah near Suf, between Paran and Tophel, Laban, Hazerot, and Di Zahav” (1:1-2). They explain that the Torah mentions all these places because Moshe, in his address, was rebuking the people for their behavior in each location: “In the desert” they sinned by complaining to Moshe that they wished they had returned to Egypt; “in the Aravah” they whored with Moabite women; “near Suf” they rebelled at the Red Sea; “between Paran and Tophel” they complained about the manna, etc. According to this understanding, Moshe, in reviewing the Israelites’ itinerary, was also critiquing the people for their behavior, suggesting that what seems to be a mere litany was in fact laced with commentary and critique.
The very first words Moshe speaks to the people in our parashah—the words with which he opens his final address—also indicate that Moshe was offering an account of the past that reflected his own preoccupations. We might have expected him to start at the very beginning, with the inauguration of his own prophetic career at the burning bush, or with the story of the flight from Egypt. But instead, Moshe seems to start in media res: “The Lord our God spoke to us at Horeb saying: ‘You have stayed long enough at this mountain. Start out and make your way to the hill country” (1:7). Moshe begins his address by quoting God’s charge to the people to depart from Sinai, suggesting that this was a key moment in Moshe’s understanding of the events of the past. Perhaps for Moshe, the departure from Sinai represented the first time the people had to learn to take Torah with them. Having just received the Torah at Sinai, the people who traveled away from the mountain had to find a way to carry Torah inside of themselves and ensure that it became a part of them once the fiery experience of revelation was over. This is also the challenge that Moshe faces when he expounds on the Torah in Sefer Devarim: How can he review and teach Torah in a way that the people will remember it and will carry it around with them always?
As Moshe understood, when we interpret Torah from our perspective and through the lens of our experience, we ensure that it remains relevant and vital. When Moshe “expounds” on Torah in the book of Deuteronomy, he is not merely reviewing the past; he is also showing us how the past continues to shape us. As we learn from Moshe’s final address, the way we remember our history and the way we retell our stories determines the people we are today, and the people we will become.