Looking for ourselves in Devarim

This is the book of perspective, of the long view of events.

Rabbi Berel Wein,

Judaism Rabbi Berel Wein
Rabbi Berel Wein

No matter how accurately facts are presented, the picture that they impart is incomplete if the element of perspective and background is not also present. The Torah reading of last week concluded the narrative of the creation of the Jewish people and of their special role in human history and civilization. This week we begin to study the final book of the Torah of Moshe.

This is the book of perspective, of the long view of events. It serves to help us place the facts of our story in proper order, for a clearer understanding. In his long oration before his death – which is what constitutes the bulk of this book of the Torah – Moshe analyzes the past story of God's relationship to his human creatures as well as indicating the future role of the Jewish people in history.

Just as a great portrait painting requires backdrop to truly capture the personality of the subject of the painting, so too, the story of a people requires a deeper understanding of its nature and history than can be provided by a mere presentation of dry facts alone. That is why this book of the Torah is so vital and necessary for any true appreciation of Judaism and of the Jewish people. One can say that this book is not only a “repetition” of the Torah – it is the Torah itself.

In this book of Dvarim, the Jewish people are revealed in all of their glory, as well as with their weaknesses and vulnerability. All of our foibles, of rebellion, backsliding, carping and complaining, are starkly revealed. Yet, the essential, unique traits of the Jewish people – their intellect and loyalty, tenaciousness and their desire for spiritual greatness – are also revealed and emphasized. The complexity of the Jewish character – both personal and national – is clearly outlined by Moshe in his final address to his beloved congregation.

He spares them no little criticism as he recounts the events that they brought upon themselves in their history, especially in their sojourn in the desert of Sinai. Nevertheless, his message is full of optimism regarding the eventual redemption and glory of Israel, the land and its people. He does not see the glass as being half-empty or half-full. He sees it merely as the container that holds the story of the Jewish people through the history of human civilization.

His optimism for the future is made more real and more likely by the cold realism of his description of the shortcomings of the past that so characterized the Jewish people that he led. The rabbis of the Talmud have taught us that Moshe was the “father” of prophets. He set the template for Jewish prophecy, which never spared the rod of criticism, while portraying the golden future that would surely come upon us. We should all be able to recognize ourselves and our times in the book of Dvarim that we are commencing to read and study this week.