“God your Lord has increased your numbers until you are (now) as many as the stars of the sky. May God, the God of your fathers, increase your numbers a thousandfold, and bless you, as He has promised.” (Deuteronomy 1:10-11)
Painting by Yoram Raanan, www.RaananArt.com
This week, we begin reading from the Book of Deuteronomy, whose Hebrew name is Devarim, meaning “words.” The book, as its name suggests, deals almost entirely with the speech given by Moses to the People of Israel before the nation entered the Land of Israel.
Moses reviews the journey through the desert, raises lessons learned, encourages and admonishes, screams and whispers, begs and chants, blesses and loves. He is bidding his nation farewell.
But we, who know Moses from the previous three books of the Torah, are amazed. Is this the same Moses who was “heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue,” the same Moses who claimed he was not “a man of words” (Ex. 4:10)? Actually, yes. There are words that do not need an articulate person to be expressed. There are words that are spoken directly from the heart.
Moses was a 120-year-old leader of whom the Torah says that “his eye had not dimmed, nor had he lost his [natural] freshness” (Deut. 34:7). Moses yearned to enter the Holy Land of his dreams along with his nation, but had to make peace with the fact that he would not be able to. He was aware that he was nearing the end of his life, yet he overcame his personal pain in order to direct his nation to the proper path for their material and spiritual establishment in the land. He poured his heart out to them, not just his words. Perhaps this Book of Words could have been termed also the “Book of the Heart.”
Many of the commandments that appear in the previous four books of the Torah are repeated in Deuteronomy.
But this book instills in them a new and unique spirit, that of a nation building its land in an attempt to create a just society that is fair to the individual as well as to the community, a society in which people treat each other well, including the poor, the stranger, the orphan and the widow.
Let us look at the festival of Succot, for example. This holiday is presented in the Book of Leviticus as follows: “…and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for a seven-day period. And you shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord for seven days in the year.... For a seven-day period you shall live in booths. Every resident among the Israelites shall live in booths, in order that your [ensuing] generations should know that I had the People of Israel live in booths when I took them out of the land of Egypt. I am the Lord, your God” (Lev. 23:40-43).
However, in the Book of Deuteronomy, the festival is presented in an entirely different light: You shall make yourself the festival of Succot for seven days.... And you shall rejoice in your festival – you, and your son, and your daughter, and your manservant, and your maidservant, and the Levite, and the stranger, and the orphan, and the widow, who are within your cities.
Seven days you shall celebrate the festival to the Lord, your God, in the place that the Lord shall choose, because the Lord, your God, will bless you in all your produce, and in all the work of your hands, and you will only be happy” (Deut. 16:13-15).
Here we find a new focus, a message of love and solidarity with the weak of society, and the taste of joy in the fruitful land coupled with a sense of gratitude to God for providing all this goodness.
Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks, is presented similarly in the book of Deuteronomy (chapter 16) as are many other commandments.
Even when the mitzva of Shabbat is mentioned in Deuteronomy, we find an emphasis on its social aspects: “But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall perform no labor, neither you, your son, your daughter, your manservant, your maidservant, your ox, your donkey, any of your livestock, nor the stranger who is within your cities, in order that your manservant and your maidservant may rest like you. And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 5:14-15).
This is the spirit of the heart of a leader who loves his nation deeply and wants what is best for the nation as a whole and for each individual within it, from the weak to the strong. In order to be able to express such a heart’s desires, you do not need to be a man of words.
You need to be a man of the heart. The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.