By Rabbi Deborah Reichmann
Special to WJW
This week’s Torah portion is Devarim, Deuteronomy 1:1 – 3:22.
“Eleh ha-devarim — These are the words.” This is the beginning of the fifth book of the Torah, the compilation of laws, exhortations to piety, prophecy of eventual deviation from said piety, and promise of redemption. We read it in the heat of summer when irritation is high and tempers are short. We are still reading it when we head into the High Holy Days, filled with thoughts of judgment and contrition. This is the book that cements the Israelite dedication to monotheism and, more importantly, the personal relationship with God.
Deuteronomy, narrated by Moses, is a series of speeches laying out the mitzvot (commandments), the benefits of following them and the penalties for deviating from them. The narrative begins with the recent history of the trek through the wilderness that provides a backdrop, and many object lessons, for the framework of Israelite society that the Torah presents.
The opening chapters, those that constitute this week’s parshah, are a recounting
of the events that have led Moses and his flock to be poised to enter the land of Israel.
In his retelling of these events, Moses is not shy about sharing his displeasure that it was the fear and complaints of the people that delayed them for 40 years.
“When Adonai heard your loud complaint, God was angry; and vowed — Not one of these men, this evil generation, shall see the good land that I swore to give to your ancestors. . .” (Deuteronomy 1:34-35).
Moses also blames the Israelites for his own failure before God, “Because of you, Adonai was incensed with me, too, and said: You shall not enter it either” (Deuteronomy 1:37).
The pattern of history as a counterpoint to the promised future is already in play, and we are clued in to the dynamic of the parshah and of the book.
A midrash notes the similarity between the words “devarim” and “devorim.” The first is “words” and the second “bees.” The midrash points out that while bee stings hurt those stung, they also hurt the bee, and cause its death. Just as Moses’ words in this book of the Torah criticize and chastise the people, it also pains him to deliver them.
But, there is another way to take a lesson from bees in regard to Deuteronomy. Bees live in a highly ordered society. They live with several generations in a single nest and have a system of cooperation in caring for offspring that are not their own. Each bee has a role and a purpose as the division of labor ranges from working in the nursery, to keeping the hive clean, to receiving and processing food, to guarding the hive. Like the devorim (the bees), devarim (the words) establish the highly ordered society of ancient Judaism.
There are about 100 commandments in the book of Deuteronomy, some are reiterations, but most are new. They deal with property law, land use and cultivation, the judicial system, charitable requirements, negligence, justice and the rules of temple worship. We generally think of holy books as teaching the origins of the world, of stories and miracles, of spiritual journeys, but the Torah is a highly practical set of books. God’s society is not merely religious, but secular. How we live with and alongside one another is as important as how we relate to God. A society based on justice and compassion, on equitable rules and humanitarian principles, is the society we are commanded to create. It is also the one worth creating, worth tending and worth defending.
Rabbi Deborah Reichmann is rabbi and Jewish spiritual leader at Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington.