Zionist Kollels: Who Wrote Sefer Dvarim?

This week's dvar Torah is by Rabbi Dov Zemel Ed.D., former Rosh Beit Medrash of the Atlanta Torah MiTzion Kollel, 2002-2006, Quality Assurance Administrator at Vernet Technologies.

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It’s almost seems sacrilegious question (and Bible critics have asked the question in a non-reverent and non-humble way). However, that is the exact question Rabbi Yitzchak Abarbanel z”l asks in his introduction to Sefer Dvarim.

Though the Talmud guarantees a portion in the world to come to each Jewish person, it excludes from that treasured fate anyone lacking belief that each verse of the Torah was authored by Hashem. כל ישראל, יש להם חלק לעולם הבא...  ואלו שאין להם חלק לעולם הבא... ואין תורה מן השמיים....

So what caused  Rabbi Abarbanel, a revered Torah commentator, to pose such a controversial question?

When studying Sefer Devarim, it is instructive to note the clear distinction in the literary style used in Sefer Dvarim from that of the previous four books.

In the first four books of the Torah, it seems like a uninvolved narrator is speaking.

However, through almost the entire book of Sefer Dvarim, Moshe is speaking to the children of Israel from the first person point of view. Instead of the often repeated verse וידבּר ה׳ אל משׁה לאמר “And God spoke to Moshe to say” found in the former books of the Torah,  the Book of Dvarim employs the verse וידבּר ה׳ אלי לאמר “And God spoke to me to say.” It is that blatant contrast of voice  that led Rabbi Abarbanel to ask his provocative question.

In searching for a solution to the dilemma,  Rabbi Abarbanel notes that the apparent shift in literary point of view from third to first person in Sefer Dvarim is simply a matter of degree. We find different protagonists talking in the other of the books of the Torah; however, they do not do  so in a continuous flow throughout the bulk of any book. Rather, their words are embedded in the storyline, where their views  are usually presented in short quotes.  The first four books, for example,  include statements from Avraham, Bilam, Lavan, and Moshe among others. Other voices are heard throughout, just not uninterruptedly.

Quotes of various individuals are included by Hashem in the text of each Sefer. As the narrator, Hashem  simply included others’ words in his text. Moshe then transcribed the words as he was instructed to do so by Hashem. Similarly, in the text of Sefer Dvarim, Hashem begins the book by introducing a quote from Moshe. In this case, however, the quote from Moshe is a series of speeches that proceed throughout the greater part of the book.

Rabbi Abarbanel counters his own apparently irreverant  question by suggesting  that after Moshe’s speeches had been compiled and presented, Hashem elected to employ Moshe’s oratory as the text for the large majority of Sefer Dvarim.  Thus, while in reality Sefer Dvarim appears to utilize a different literary point of view, it is akin to the other sfarim; it is written from Hashem’s perspective quoting Moshe as another voice within Hashem’s narration. In Sefer Dvarim,  the quotation is simply significantly longer, encompassing almost the entire book.

Rabbi Abarbanel further elaborates the rationale for these lengthy soliloquies.  As Moshe understood the proximity of both his death and the Jewish people’s immigration to the Holy Land, he recognized the  consequence of  concentrating on particular  relevant matters of significance to the Jewish people at that time. Hashem viewed the speeches Moshe intended for that unique period as being relevant for future generations and appropriate to include in the Torah.  

Still there is one gnawing doubt. Beginning as it does with Moshe’s quotation, Sefer Dvarim can easily create a mistaken impression.  Why give the option for a doubter to in fact conclude, as Rabbi Abarbanel seems to at the onset, that Moshe in fact wrote the book of Dvarim singlehandedly? 

Obviously, Hashem chose this presentation for a reason.  To answer that question, we ask ourselves, “What would have been lacking if the book included the same speeches in smaller quotes, instead of almost the entire book as a  quote?”

Or alternatively, if Hashem concluded  that the words that Moshe presented in his speeches to that generation entering the Holy Land were appropriate to include in the Torah for all future generation, why did Hashem not simply use those words without citing that they were derived from Moshe’s soliloquies?  Why not simply include the content and refrain from  misleading some to think that possibly Moshe wrote the book?

Hashem may very well have concluded that coming from Moshe to the children of Israel, the message would have more influence. Though the content of Moshe’s speeches are true, when they were conveyed  from a Being who cannot help but be perfect, they might lose some of their  impact. However, when a fallible man, a man like you and me, reaches the highest levels of righteousness and Divine knowledge through the use of his free-will, as Moshe did, those concepts of the capacity for man to self-improve and strive for perfection are profoundly underscored.

Thus, since Sefer Dvarim is focused on our free will to choose Hashem’s path or to follow our evil inclinations, it is appropriate that the style of the book reflect the content.

As we learn these next several Torah portions together, allow us to not simply learn from the content of Moshe’s speeches, but also from the speaker of those words himself.

Torah MiTzion (see their dynamic website) was established in 1995 with the goal of strengthening Jewish communities around the globe and infusing them with the love for Torah, the Jewish People and for the State of Israel. Over the past eighteen years Torah MiTzion has recruited, trained and dispatched more than one thousand 'shlichim' (emissaries) to Jewish communities in countries spanning five continents and impacted Jewish communities with an inspiring model of commitment to both Judaism and Zionism.