The book of Exodus states that in his first encounter with God, Moses was slow in speech. According to a well-known midrash, Moses stuttered as a result of a test Pharaoh imposed on him as a baby to see if he was so wise that he might be the redeemer of the Hebrew slaves.
In the book of Deuteronomy, or Devarim, Moses no longer is able to rely on Aaron or Miriam, who have died. He finds his voice and his words without slowness of speech or a stutter. Finding his words, Moses speaks to us for all time.
In a musical sense, the fifth book of the Torah is a recapitulation of themes presented earlier: commandments, laws and remembrance of all God has done for “us.” Devarim adds the statement of faith that the spiritual nature of “God is One,” leaving no question that Judaism is based on monotheism.
The recapitulation of themes is the reason that Deuteronomy is called Mishneh Torah, or Review of the Torah. It begins, “These are the words.” Imagine being there at that moment when Moses recalls places in the wilderness the people experienced on their journey.
A journey from Mount Sinai, which would have taken 11 days, took 40 years due to their actions and lack of faith, according to the scholar Ramban. The Israelites did not need nor need a description of the places they journeyed as they preferred not to be reminded of them. Rashi comments that not mentioning what happened in these locations softened the rebuke of the people. It is possible that it also opened the way to teshuvah (repentance).
Why is all this being mentioned in the Torah now?
A new generation is about to enter the promised land. This is a generation which did not experience the cruelty of Pharaoh’s slavery system. This new generation has to know what God has done, and accept that they will no longer have Moses with them.
“These are the words” begins the portion. What is the power of words? Words, while symbols, have the power to teach, to shape a people in law, to enact a relationship such as marriage. Words can bless or curse, and words can express love and hope. Words can destroy a person’s reputation. They can kill, but they also help to create peace and healing.
When Moses says, “These are the words,” he is saying that these words will help us to build a community which will be compassionate, performing deeds of loving kindness and tzedakah. All of this, through these words, will place us among the best communities of humanity if we pay attention and practice the teaching.
In an essay in the Eytz Hayyim Chumash, Jeffrey H. Tigay wrote that in Deuteronomy we learn “… Religious life should be based on a Sacred Book and its study.” Logically, then, our spiritual life is not based on sacrificial worship. Rather, it is based on the power of these words and teachings. In this manner we learn mitzvot (grace after meals, mezuzot, tzitzit, tzedakah, gemilut hasadim) and the beauty of our tradition, a gift to humanity.
Rabbi Arnold Saltzman is the rabbi of Hevrat Shalom of Maryland, Sha’are Shalom of Waldorf, rabbi emeritus of Beit Chaverim of Calvert County and cantor emeritus of Adas Israel Congregation.