The Children of Israel were encamped on the Plains of Moab, pasturing their flocks, having completed a victorious military campaign. Their goal of the Promised Land lay just beyond the horizon. It was winter; no doubt cold and rainy. Further battles would have to wait until conditions improved. It was at this juncture that Moses rose before his people to deliver his last remarks. He was fated to die before the Israelites would cross the Jordan River and begin their conquest of Canaan.
Sefer Devarim is a book of words that conveys Moses’ point of view. The majority of the tome is a transcription of his final message, one that still resonates. It is comprised of a series of sermons and poetic verse, and one block of legal code. He used rhetoric and homiletics to help shape his overriding theme; the need to respect the authority of the law. He reminded the Children of Israel of their noble heritage; of their transformation from slavery to freedom. Most importantly he urged them not to make the same mistake as their parents, who now lay dead in the wilderness, exhausted by thirty eight years of a journey to nowhere.
He also speaks to them of their history. There were only three men who had survived the brutalities of the wilderness; himself, Joshua and Caleb; all the rest had no independent memory of the Exodus and the Revelation at Sinai. Robert Alter observed that Sefer Devarim serves as a written memorial of a peoples’ foundational event, which has been purposely written “so that latter-day Israelites listening to ‘this book of teaching’ Sefer haTorah hazeh, will feel that they themselves are re-enacting that event”.
Parsha Devarim contains a detailed narrative of Israel’s itinerary following their departure from Egypt. Included is a synopsis of events associated with various places, mostly occasions where their parents had rebelled, suffered rebuke and eventually were condemned to a desert death without even gazing on the Promised Lands. Rashi suggested the itinerary is a veiled rebuke to the Israelites, not only for what they themselves had done, but also for the errors their parents had made, in demonstrating a lack of faith in the power of God. The message that Moses hoped to deliver to this new generation of the Children of Israel was that they too would risk their entire inheritance if they failed to heed the word of God.
The events are told from Moses’ perspective and in his words. For example, when describing the fateful mission of the twelve spies and the disastrous consequences – Moses preached that he had stood before the nation and exhorted them to show faith in God, and they had refused. However, in the original version of the event, recorded in Parsha Shelach, Moses was said to have been silent and had failed to reproach the people for their transgression. There are some other differences between the original record of these two events and Moses’ recollections.
The differences in texts are understandable. Firstly, Moses was not simply repeating history – he was explaining history and conveying to the Children of Israel the events, not only as he understood them, but as he wished them to be remembered, not just by his immediate audience but also by their descendants.
Moses was successful in setting the tone for a chronicle that did serve to stand as a symbol for Israel’s foundational event. In the Book of Nehemiah, a remarkable scene was recorded of a populist outcry demanding that the book of the Law of Moses be brought out and read to them (itself a foundational event of Judaism) The narrator records how the people were overwhelmed by the power of its words and were weeping. The fact that today people still read and study the words of Moses should be testimony itself of the power of what he told the Children of Israel on the eve of his death and at the dawn of Israel’s’ realization of its national goal.