Carrying Torah Forward

Devarim By :  Matthew Berkowitz Director of Israel Programs Posted On Jul 13, 2002 / 5762

The prophet Hosea addresses the role of words in the sacred task of returning to God. In poetic brevity, the prophet declares, “Take words with you and return to the Lord” (Hosea 14:3). How appropriate it is that Parashat Devarim, read towards the beginning of the three weeks leading up to Tisha B’Av, begins with the Hebrew word devarim, words. Encamped on the other side of the Jordan River in the land of Moab, Moses “undertook to expound this Teaching” (Deuteronomy 1:5). Precisely how does Moses ‘undertake to expound’ the Torah? And how can we understand Moses’ teaching in light of Hosea’s declaration?

Two commentators explain Moses’ holy endeavor. Rashi (1040–1105) believes that Moses was turning outward, beyond the Israelite community. Moses, according to this sensitive commentator, was busy “explaining the Torah in seventy languages.” That is to say, Moses was opening Torah, not just to the Israelites who were the direct recipients of God’s Revelation at Sinai but also to the many nations of the world. Moses took to heart God’s promise, that the nations of the world will be blessed through Abraham and his descendents. Moses’ action was a pedagogical turn outward, to build bridges with and enrich the world through Torah.

Abraham Ibn Ezra (1080–1164) argues for an alternative understanding of Moses’ teaching. Quite beautifully, he writes, “behold, Moses began to explain to the children born in the desert all that happened to their ancestors and he taught them all of the commandments that the ancestors heard from the mouth of God…” For Ibn Ezra, Moses’ pedagogical mode was a turn inward – toward the Israelite community. The prophet of prophets recognized that Israelite history did not begin and end with him. Rather, Moses understood the need to be oriented toward the future – to build a people from a rich past. Educating children propels Torah forward.

Michael Walzer, a luminary in the field of political science and a passionate student of Judaism, takes this thought a step further. “Perhaps,” Walzer writes, “we should say simply that the covenant is carried forward on a flood of talk: argument and analysis, folklore and expansion, interpretation and reinterpretation” (Exodus and Revolution, 88).

It is devarim, words, that play a central role in Torah. Words of Torah, as Rashi explains, build bridges to the outside world; words of Torah, as Ibn Ezra writes, ensure the future of the Jewish people; and words of Torah, in the precious words of Hosea, have the ability to return us to God. As we begin the book of Deuteronomy, may each of us reflect on the power of words in our tradition. For it is words that create relationship – with each other and with God.

The publication and distribution of the JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.