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Torah in Ten: Parashat Devarim

By Rabbi Chaim Miller

Devarim = Words

Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe Courtesy of

Devarim means “words,” and is the name of this week’s Torah reading—the first weekly reading in the book of Devarim, the fifth book of the Torah. Of course, the entire Torah—at least as it was communicated to us earthly beings—consists of words; but in the book of Devarim, the nature of these words is of particular significance.

The book of Devarim is a 37-day-long speech by Moses, beginning on the first of Shevat and ending on the seventh of Adar—the day of Moses’ passing—in the year 2488 from creation (1273 BCE). In his speech, Moses recaps the major events and laws that are recorded in the Torah’s other four books. Thus the book of Devarim is also called Mishneh Torah, “Repetition of the Torah” (and hence its Anglicized-Greek name, Deuteronomy, or “Second Law”).

Moses wrote all five books. But, as our sages explain, in the first four books Moses transcribed everything as he received it from G‑d, while in Devarim he says it “in his own words.” The distinction is clearly seen by the fact that the first four books are written in the third person (“G‑d spoke to Moses, saying”), while in Devarim we hear Moses’ voice in first person (“At that time G‑d said to me,” etc.).

Nevertheless, Devarim belongs to what we call the “Written Torah,” meaning that not only the content but also the words and letters are considered to be of divine origin. Our sages explain that Moses had so totally abnegated his ego to the divine will that “the divine presence spoke from his throat”—Moses’ own words are also G‑d’s own words.

As such, the book of Devarim acts as a bridge between the Written Torah and the “Oral Torah.” The Oral Torah includes the Talmud and the Midrashim, the commentaries and the codes, the Zohar and the Kabbalah, and “everything that a worthy student will expound before his master”—everything that has been produced by thirty-three centuries of Torah scholars studying and interpreting the Torah in accordance with the Sinaitic tradition. In the Oral Torah, which is generated by minds and mouths less ego-free than Moses’, the content is divine but the words and letters are human—man’s own.

In other words, we have two dimensions to Torah: a dimension in which both the content and the “packaging” are bestowed from Above, and a dimension in which the divine wisdom and will is packaged in “our own words.” And then we have the book of Devarim, in which the two converge: a human being, Moses, attains a level of identification with the divine wisdom and will on which “his own words” are completely in harmony with their divine content—so much in harmony that they are no less G‑d’s words than those which G‑d dictated in the first four books.

Indeed, it is from the book of Devarim that the entire “Oral Torah” flows. Moses’ utter identification with the divine wisdom empowers our own lesser souls, each of which possesses “a spark of the soul of Moses,” to do the same (albeit on a lesser level): to create of “our own words” receptacles for the divine wisdom.Talking Man This happens, on one level, every time we open our mouths.

The ancient philosophers refer to the human being as “the speaker,” and no one has yet come up with a better appellation for our talkative race. We do love to talk. Witness the endless self-explaining we engage in, the perpetual conversation we feel obliged to “make,” the quadrillions of words unleashed each day in every imaginable medium. Why this insatiable need to put everything into words, as if nothing truly exists until it is trimmed and stretched to fit a set of humanly emitted sounds?

Because, say the chassidic masters, there is nothing that the human being wants more than to play G‑d.

G‑d did it: He spoke reality into being. He said, “Let there be light!” and there was light. He said, “Let the waters gather and the land be revealed!” and oceans and continents were formed. But man looks at G‑d’s creation and sees it as something still unformed, still lacking definition. So we speak and speak and speak, categorizing, quantifying and qualifying G‑d’s world in an effort to give it meaning and purpose.

Of course, there are differences. G‑d is infinite and omnipotent; we are finite and fallible. G‑d spoke light into being; we have been granted the power to speak that light into a brighter, more focused luminescence—but we are just as likely to speak it into darkness. We can verbalize the continents as countries and provinces of a productive world community—or we can speak into them boundaries of animosity and strife.

But that’s the “partner in creation” whom G‑d desired: a partner who is just as likely to run the shop into the ground as to build it up. A free, independent partner, whose choices are fully his own—and therefore fully his responsibility and fully his achievement. Because G‑d wanted true partners to His endeavor, not a bunch of employees and messenger boys (He had plenty of those already when He created man—they’re called “angels”).

But G‑d did even more. Not only did He subject his creation to human speechifying, He also put His Torah—His own thoughts and desires—into humanly cognizant words, and then invited us into the process of verbalizing His Torah. Because if we’re His partners, we have to be in on it all. A true partner doesn’t only do his part in the running and the development of the business; he also participates in drawing up the mission statement, the modus operandi, the rules and regulations.

So G‑d granted the human mind and mouth a mandate not only to shape His world, but also to participate in the formulation of the Torah—the laws, the blueprint, the “source code” of creation.

Thus was born Devarim, the book of Words. The first to receive this mandate was Moses, who fulfilled it so perfectly that his “contribution” became one of the five books that form the crux of Torah. And Moses’ achievement contains the empowering seeds for all subsequent human partners to the articulation of the divine wisdom. Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson; adapted by Yanki Tauber.


Originally published in Week in Review. Republished with the permission of Adapted by Rabbi Yanki Tauber

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