PARASHAT DEVARIM: The right way to study Torah

The Torah learner is a full partner in the creation.

August 8, 2019 10:21
3 minute read.
PARASHAT DEVARIM: The right way to study Torah

The right way to study Torah. (photo credit: MASA ISRAEL JOURNEY/FLICKR)

The Book of Deuteronomy, which we begin reading this Shabbat, is the fifth and last of the five books of the Torah. It deals primarily with the speeches made by Moses, the Jewish nation’s first leader and the person who led them from Egypt to Canaan – the Land of Israel. He was not going to be entering the land with them, and therefore he was parting from them before they did. Knowing he was about to leave this world, Moses delivered a number of speeches in which he prepared the nation for entering the land and establishing the first Jewish state in history. These speeches are composed of historic descriptions, explanations of commandments and guidance on how to face the nations of Canaan.

This book is also called Mishneh Torah, hence the Latin name Deuteronomy which means “second law.” The name represents the repetition and explanation of many commandments that were already written in the previous four books but were now repeated by Moses in the context of entering Canaan. The book itself describes its content as follows:
“These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel... After he had smitten Sihon, king of the Amorites... and Og, king of the Bashan... On that side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses commenced [and] explained this Law” (Deuteronomy 1, 1-5).
The book of Deuteronomy is Moses explaining the Torah. When we study the book carefully, we find Moses’s explanations usually integrated with the reality the nation was facing, on the verge of entering the Land and dealing with the military, theological, and social challenges inherent in facing the nations residing in Canaan.

Note the emphasis on this explanation of the Torah occurring after the war and victory over the two kings Sihon and Og on the eastern side of the Jordan. Why was it important to mention this? Later in the book this emphasis is repeated again and again. The war against these two great kings is mentioned frequently and even compared to the Exodus from Egypt in the miracles and wonders it entailed. What was so unique about this war?

Toward the end of the book we read that Moses spoke to the Jewish people, encouraging them, empowering them with confidence ahead of the war they were facing:
“The Lord your God, He will cross before you.... And the Lord will do to them as He did to the Amorite kings Sihon and Og... Be strong and courageous! Neither fear nor be dismayed of them, for the Lord your God, He is the One Who goes with you. He will neither fail you nor forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31, 3-6).

These words are reminiscent of Moses’s call to the nation 40 years earlier on the banks of the Red Sea when the Egyptian army was pursuing the Jewish nation. Then Moses said:
“Don’t be afraid! Stand firm and see the Lord’s salvation that He will wreak for you today... The Lord will fight for you, but you shall remain silent” (Exodus 14, 13-14).

The difference between the two events is obvious. While on the banks of the Red Sea, the Israelites were called upon to be passive and silent, and to trust in God’s redemption; when they were about to enter the land of Canaan, they were called upon to have daring, courage, and military capability alongside faith in God who would bring them success and victory.
In the war against Sihon and Og the Israelites were – for the first time – partners in the victory. The comparison with the Exodus from Egypt was to point out that contrast. During the Exodus they were passively led, but 40 years later the nation stood up and actively took the lead.

Now we see why it was important to mention this war in the introduction to the book that deals with the explanation of the Torah. This war showed us how we are supposed to learn Torah. When a person learns Torah, he is not passive. On the contrary, in every beit midrash (study hall), in every Torah lesson, asking a question becomes an integral and essential part of the process of learning. The learner is a full partner in the creation, listening and accepting but also asking questions and making his opinion and personal grasp of the subject fully present. By learning Torah this way, we were privileged to have the wonderful and tremendous creation termed “The Jewish Bookshelf.”

The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.

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