Shaya Cohen -


What is the Point of Deuteronomy?

The last of the Five Books of the Torah is almost entirely Moses’ speech, retelling and summarizing the history of the Jewish people in the wilderness.

A key problem is that the retold version of the story changes many significant “facts” that appear earlier in the text. I’ll share just a few examples:

1: In the first telling, G-d tells Moses to send the spies into the land, but in the second telling, the idea comes from the Jewish people.

2: The Torah makes it clear that Moses cannot enter the land because he sinned. But in the retelling, Moses says it is the fault of the people!

3: In the Ten Commandments we are commanded to “remember” the Sabbath, whereas the second version commands the people to “keep” the Sabbath.

What is going on?

There are many plausible explanations. One I have advanced before: that the Torah has no problem with multiple versions of a story, with the truth being multifaceted enough that even significant details can change without corrupting the moral or symbolic lessons.

But there are other explanations that also make sense, and here is one that I like: Moses retells the story in such a way that he is trying to help the people mature. He wants them to become more responsible, matching the gain in their freedom and ownership. So he tells the stories differently to achieve that purpose.

Here’s how:

In the first telling of the spies, the Jewish people are largely passive. G-d suggests the spies, and for the most part, the Jewish people act more as terrified rabble than as responsible adults.

In the retelling, Moses lays the blame for the whole thing on the people. He tells them they they, not someone else, are responsible for what has happened to them. No victimhood is allowed or entertained.

This trend continues for the rest of the book. Moses is forbidden from entering the land, and, according to the earlier telling, it was all Moses’ fault. But in the retelling: “Because of you G-d was incensed with me too, saying: You shall not enter [the land] either.” (Deut. 1:37)

Why does he shift the blame? I think he wants the people to feel responsible for everything that goes on around them, even if they do not actually deserve much of the blame!

In the last example cited above: we are told, in Exodus, to “remember” the Sabbath day. This word means something like “to take notice,” as in the first time it is used: “God remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the cattle that were with him in the ark.” (Gen. 8:1)

But in Deut., we are told to “guard” the Sabbath day. This word is found in Genesis as the positive command to “guard” the Garden of Eden, the Cherubim who guard the way to Eden, and Cain’s question: “Am I my brother’s guardian?” The difference between “notice” and “guard” is all about posture and intention to take action. The Jews in the wilderness were told to pay attention to the Sabbath – but in Moses’ speech we are commanded to be positively vigilant, able and ready to act the same way the guardian angels do – and Cain does not. “Remembering” the Sabbath is about the past. “Guarding/Keeping” the Sabbath is about the future.

Why does this matter?

The challenge for Moses is that the Jewish people were never again going to have a leader as strong as he was. Leaders can be a crutch for people to lean on, and they often cannot reach their full potential when there is no need to do so (think of the analogy for what can happen to a sports team when the star is out for the game – others “step up”). Moses is trying to leave the people in a mental state where they would be ready and able to “up their game,” to take responsibility as they had never done before. Freedom and responsibility are twinned, so as the people gain more freedom, they need to be aware and conscious of what it means for their mission.

In reading this last book of the Torah, the variations from the earlier telling fall in line with this understanding. The purpose of the speech is not a recitation of facts or rehashing history. It is instead a targeted message: you are responsible for your own actions going forward. And more than this: even the things you do not think you are responsible for (e.g., Moses’ sin at the rock), you are still responsible for. The message resonates through history, as the Jewish people consider themselves charged with improving everything, whether or not it seems “fair” that we should be held responsible for the entire world.

[an @iwe, @susanquinn, and @blessedblacksmith work]

Comments are welcome!

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