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  • Judy Shapiro

Direct Experience

This week we begin the book of Devarim, in which Moshe recaps the 40 years of the Jews’ wanderings in the wilderness. He begins with the period right after the giving of the Torah, when God says to the people, who apparently have been living at the foot of Mt. Sinai for a year, “enough of your living by this mountain: get up and go!” Moshe recounts the people’s journey, the set-up of the judicial system, and retells the story of the meraglim who spied out the land. Then, like the Torah itself, he seems to jump over 38 intervening years and recounts the conquest of the east side of the Jordan River, and the transition to Joshua as the one who will lead the people into the promised land.

In English, or actually in Greek, the book is called “Deuteronomy”, or “second telling of the law”, which makes perfect sense. But in Hebrew the entire book is called Devarim, because the first parsha is called Devarim, which in turn is because “devarim” is the first significant word of the first sentence of that parsha. That is the superficial reason for the naming of this 5th and final book of the Torah of Moshe Rabbeinu; it is up to us to find deeper meaning in this unusual term.

Devarim can mean “words”. But it can also mean “things”, either concrete, basic things, or abstract things, or “matters”. We find all three meanings in the commentaries on Devarim: first, the plain and simple words of Moshe are important at that time and to that particular audience, for the same reason they are important to us: those people who were listening to Moshe tell the story, were not there themselves to see it happen! They were a generation or two removed from the actual events: remember, the adult participants of the exodus and the giving of the Torah were mostly dead by the time the Israelites were about to enter the land. So they were hearing about it as recent history, but second-hand, just as we hear about it as our own less-recent history, but also second-hand. They needed reminding and inspiration, just like we do.

The words spoken by Moshe were just words, but they describe the physical “things”, the second meaning of “devarim”, because the audience hearing them at that time had missed out on the physical experience of the exodus and the other miracles that occurred in the early years in the wilderness. The Covenant was only real to them by virtue of Moshe telling them about it. They needed Moshe’s WORDS to describe for them the THINGS THAT OCCURRED.

The third meaning of devarim, as the abstract or important matters at hand, is described by Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, who said, “With Moshe’s imminent death, all of his physical personality will depart. Only a description of the place where the people heard the last of his faithful words, will be handed down to posterity so that, if some day a late descendant of the Children of Israel will come to this place, it may perhaps echo for him these words and inspire him to follow them faithfully”. We speak a lot about how the destruction of the 2nd temple changed Judaism forever, and how scary it was for the Jews of that time to contemplate the loss of their entire system of worship; but how much more terrifying must it have been for the ancient Israelites who were about to lose Moshe, the only leader they had ever known, a literal conduit between them and God? They had been wandering for 40 years to get to this very point, and now Moshe is about to die and leave them in total uncertainty. So Moshe’s message, his “devarim”, carried tremendous weight and importance for them.

Rav Ismar Schorsch carries this idea further, also relating it to the loss of the Temple some 1,500 years later, when he notes that after the 2nd Temple was destroyed, in spite of the people’s total investment in the sacrificial system, Judaism actually thrived because of an entirely new emphasis: as he puts it, “Judaism survived because it replaced its CULT with a CANON!” The crucial importance of Devarim, the words and things and ideas in our book, the text of Judaism, cannot be overstated.

And speaking of the destruction of the Temple, that brings us to Tisha B’Av, which as the Rabbi pointed out 3 weeks ago, when the 3 weeks began, even though the fast is to be observed tomorrow, the date of Tisha B’Av is still today. Words or Devarim are certainly easy to connect to Tisha B’Av: it is said to be Sinat Chinam, baseless hatred, and Lashon HaRa, Evil Speech, that caused the destruction of the second Temple in the year 70.

But the vision of Isaiah, on Shabbat Chazon, focuses on his vision, not on words. So, are the crucial messages of Judaism more about visual images, or about verbal images? What is the central method by which we receive this message? Is it an intellectual endeavor, whereby we hear words, learn lessons, and teach them to the next generations verbally? This has always been our primary emphasis. But Isaiah’s vision is sensory, as was the learning done by the Israelites in the first 4 books of the Torah: the people experienced slavery in Egypt in their aching backs and arms; they saw the Cloud of Glory and the Pillar of Fire protecting them after their exodus; they smelled and tasted the Pesach sacrifices; they heard the terrifying thunder at Sinai. All these sensory perceptions made the Israelites of the first 4 books physically very aware of God’s presence. Their physical presence as Egypt suffered the 10 plagues is perhaps the strongest example, the strongest message they physically received.

BUT in the 5th book, the book of Devarim, all those sights and sounds and tastes and smells are far behind them. The words Moshe uses to retell them the story are all they have, besides their fear and anxiety as he is about to leave them to a whole new and scary world, a world in which they will have to work, and grow their own food, and provide their own clothes, and have no leader who can speak to God and tell them exactly what to do. We often feel that it is hard to be so distant from our historical beginnings; that’s why it can be so amazingly inspiring to be in Israel, because it helps us feel closer to our source. I recently ran across a poem by Jean Nordhaus called “A Visitor In Herzliya”, which recounts her almost visionary encounter with a stretch of beach near Tel Aviv: it describes the mystical sensory reaction the poet has to the land. It’s almost as if Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch’s statement was meant just for her, that “someday a late descendant of the Children of Israel will come to this place” and be inspired to follow Moshe’s words faithfully. Except the poet’s source of inspiration is sensory, instead of verbal. Here is the poem:

A Visitor In Herzliya, by Jean Nordhaus:

Scattered on the sand are many small stones

each wearing the shape of its losses.

and though I’m empty as a tin

scoured clean of history,

everything here remembers me.

The girl on the beach and the water,

striped like farmland into plotted zones-

beryl, midnight, and the shallow ambers.

The children shouting in the sea’s

perpetual din- wave after wave-

remember me. They bury themselves

in wet sand, lie in their coffins,

heavy as golems, rinse in the surf

and deliver themselves, blue lipped, slick

as seals, to mothers who wrap them in towels

and lead them home. The mothers

remember me. Cliffs tumble into the sea

bearing the weight of their losses.

And though helicopters roar and red flags wave,

the sturdy sparrows are unafraid.

Olive trees patrol the land on stumpy legs.

If we weep for our enemies, we can weep

for ourselves. I lift a stone in my hand

and the hand remembers.


The poet, like Isaiah, is a person who is inspired by what her senses tell her; many of us may feel inspired instead by words. Both types of people need to be inspired by something, because like the generation about to enter the land, we have not had the “God experience” directly. But today’s parsha reminds us that we are not the first generation to feel distant from our source. The Israelites who were about to lose Moshe, and about to cross over into the land with a new leader, felt the same way, and like them, we can take comfort and inspiration from the words, or Devarim, of the Torah.

Shabbat Shalom, and have a meaningful fast tomorrow.

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