Portion of the Week

Torah Portion of the Week: Not an Imitation, Not a Duplication

Parashat Devarim

'Moses Views the Land of Israel,' a woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld from the 1860 'Bible in Pictures.'
Wikimedia Commons

What is the Book of Deuteronomy and what is its relationship with the four books that precede it? Its first verse states: “These are the words which Moses spoke unto all Israel beyond the Jordan” (Deuteronomy 1:1). Later we read: “Beyond the Jordan, in the land of Moab, took Moses upon him to expound this teaching” (Deut. 1:5). Moses addresses the Israelites on the eve of their entry into Canaan. After his remarks, his death is described and the Torah ends.

In post-biblical tradition, Deuteronomy is called Mishneh Torah (derived from the Greek, Deuteronomion, or Deuteronomy in English). The word mishneh connotes “doubling” – as in another biblical episode, where the Israelites gather a double portion of manna for the Sabbath: “And it came to pass that on the sixth day they gathered twice as much bread [lechem mishneh]” (Exodus 16:22). The term “mishneh Torah” appears in Deuteronomy, in the context of a commandment relating to Israel’s future ruler, who must write “a copy of this law [mishneh ha-Torah] in a book” (Deut. 17:18) – namely, a copy of the Torah. According to traditional exegetists, the term expresses the idea that Deuteronomy repeats the Torah: It is not the Torah itself, but instead reviews, reconstructs or explains the Torah.

This concept is based on the fact that most of the events Moses mentions in his speeches in Deuteronomy are also depicted – real-time – in the Pentateuch’s other books, particularly in Exodus and Numbers. Here are some examples from this week’s portion, Parashat Devarim (Deut. 1:1-3:22): Moses’ complaints about the difficulty of single-handedly leading Israel (Deut. 1:9-12) is mentioned in Numbers (11:11-12,14), while the solution – appointment of tribal princes as local judges (Deut. 1:13-17) – repeats the exact account given in Exodus (18:19-26). The sin and punishment of the spies who slander Canaan, which Moses describes (Deut. 1: 22-45), are reported by the narrator of Numbers (Num. 13-14). And there are many examples.

Why does Moses retell events that anyone who reads the Torah in its proper sequence already knows about? The traditional reason given is that this is the Second Torah: The heart of the biblical text has already been conveyed in the books of Genesis through Numbers; Deuteronomy is a review. The narrative sequence is logical: Moses, nearing the end of his life, gives a retrospective account of Israel’s formative period, when he was at center stage. Ostensibly, this explains the many differences between Deuteronomy’s version of events and the versions presented in the Pentateuch’s other books as a product of both the time that has elapsed and the different perspective. Alternately, one can try consolidate the different depictions into one harmonic version, unifying all of them.

Although it is the Torah’s last book, it is not certain that Deuteronomy actually considers itself to be the Second Torah; the term "Mishneh Torah" (Second Torah) appears twice in the book, in the context of commandments about writing a copy of the Torah. But what is the original – what is the Torah itself? Ostensibly, four books precede it, but Deuteronomy clearly, consistently defines itself not as secondary but as the Torah itself, as it is written: “ ... took Moses upon him to expound this teaching [torah]” (Deut. 1:5), and afterward, thus: “this teaching [torah], which I set before you this day” (Deut. 4:8). The Second Torah that the monarch who rules Israel must commit to writing is thus Deuteronomy – not because the rest of the Pentateuch constitutes the Torah and Deuteronomy is its copy, but because Deuteronomy is the Torah and the ruler must copy it.

Deuteronomy sees itself not as a review of the Torah – not only because it uses the term “torah” to describe itself, but principally because of the book’s content. Deuteronomy’s central core, chapters 12-26, is a broad, detailed constitution. Although the books that precede it contain clusters of laws, Deuteronomy does not relate to them. It describes God’s revelation at Horeb, which is also the background of the granting of those laws. But Deuteronomy offers an original argument regarding this revelation; to appreciate its innovation, we must compare it with the account in Exodus that depicts how, during the revelation at Horeb – including the Ten Commandments, and other laws and ordinances – the Israelites ask Moses to represent them before God because direct exposure to him frightens them. Moses, acceding to their request, hears the laws himself. He then conveys them to Israel, who promise to obey them, and the ceremony of the covenant is held (Exod. 20-24).

Deuteronomy’s version of events is somewhat faithful to that in Exodus, but it omits a substantive part – Moses’ transmission of the commandments to Israel, its promise and the ceremony. Deuteronomy relates that, in light of the nation’s request, God commands Moses, “Go say to them: Return ye to your tents. But as for thee, stand thou here by me, and I will speak unto thee all the commandment, and the statutes, and the ordinances, which thou shalt teach them” (Deut. 5:26-27). But Moses conceals in his heart the laws he hears at Horeb; only now, in Deuteronomy, after 40 years in the desert, on the eve of Israel’s entry into Canaan and moments before his death, does he announce them to Israel.

Not only does Deuteronomy omit the announcement of the laws at Horeb, postponing it by decades – it replaces those laws. The laws God conveys to Moses at Horeb appear in Exodus 20-23, but Deuteronomy does not mention them. Rather, it repeats (with slight changes) the Ten Commandments, which open the body of laws in Exodus – except that the constitution is now completely different. It is much longer and essentially contains different statutes.

Deuteronomy is thus meant not to repeat the Torah but to be the Torah. When we read Deuteronomy, we see that its narrator intended for it not to be just another book in the Pentateuch but rather a separate entity, one to be read separately. Thus, when we read Parashat Devarim and the portions following it, we can attempt to appreciate its uniqueness – not as the Second Torah but as the Torah itself.