Devarim 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Devarim

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

D’varim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22)

OVERVIEW

The Book of Deuteronomy, or D’varim, is set as an extended speech. Just as the Israelites are about to cross the Jordan and possess the Land, Moshe gives them his final words of wisdom, encouragement, and rebuke. Moshe will not be going with them, so he reviews the history of the Exodus, the travels, the rebellions, and the battles, along with restatements of many laws, and some new ones. The first portion of D’varim is a retelling of the history of the Israelites since they left Sinai, with special attention paid to the promise of the Land.

IN FOCUS

“Moses began to expound this law, saying: The Lord our God said to us at Horev, “You have stayed long enough at this mountain. Break camp and advance into the hill country of the Amorites. . ” ” (Deuteronomy 1:5-7)

PSHAT

At the end of the forty-year trek, Moshe begins a review of many laws and events, starting with the Israelites camped around Mount Sinai. (Here known by its other name, Horev.) According to one version of the Torah’s chronology, the Israelites camped at Sinai quite a while, only leaving in Numbers chapter 10. According to this interpretation, all the laws of the Mishkan, the priesthood, and many civil and agricultural laws were given as the Israelites camped at the mountain.

DRASH

Many contemporary Jews understand our Torah text to be composed of earlier sources with slight differences between them; thus attempting to harmonize exactly who was where, and when, can be a little confusing. (So I’m not going to try.) In our text from Deuteronomy, God tells the Israelites they’ve camped at Sinai long enough, and it’s time to get moving towards their Land. The Hebrew is rav lechem– literally, “it’s enough,” or “a lot” for you.

Rashi offers two alternative ways of reading “you have stayed long enough at this mountain.” First, he says that the text means exactly what it seems to mean: get going, you’ve been here long enough. Then he brings a midrashic reading of “it’s enough for you:”

    You have had greatness and reward increased upon you for your dwelling by this mountain. You made a Mishkan, a Menorah [lamp for the Mishkan], holy vessels, and received the Torah. You appointed a Sanhedrin [rabbinic court], and captains of thousands and captains of hundreds.

According to this midrash, the rav of rav lechem means “lots for you,” i.e., you have lots of great and wonderful things to show for your stay here at Sinai. Each of the things that Rashi names belongs to the section of laws preceding Numbers 10, when the first journey from Sinai is mentioned. Furthermore, it’s a symbolically complete list- the Mishkan, Menorah, and holy vessels represent religious and spiritual life, while the Sanhedrin and the “captains” represent civil order and social justice. Torah is fully “received” with both its ritual and social commandments.

So why would Rashi bring two alternative readings of the same phrase? Maybe he’s hinting that the two interpretations are not alternatives, but complementary: yes, it was a wonderful blessing to receive the Torah and all its wisdom at Sinai, but it must be taken out and applied in the rest of the world, too. One can sit in synagogue and receive wonderful inspiration and beautiful spiritual instruction, but such teachings only matter if they are lived in the “real world.”

One can even take every class Kolel has to offer (and we certainly hope you do!) but ultimately, studying Torah is a means to a transformed life, lived in community with all kinds of other people. There is a time for receiving Torah at the mountain of God, and then there’s a time to go out and make a life of Torah happen in less cozy and predictable surroundings. There is a time to learn, and a time to apply what you’ve learned; both are necessary stages along a holy journey.

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