Study the word

In the weekly synagogue readings of the Bible, we are in the last book of the Pentateuch; known in the English-speaking world as Deuteronomy.

Mount Sinai 370 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Mount Sinai 370
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
In the weekly synagogue readings of the Bible, we are in the last book of the Pentateuch; known in the English-speaking world as Deuteronomy. The origin of the book title is from the Greek deuteros nomos (second law) based upon the verse: “Also it shall be, when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write for himself a copy of the law” (17:18). The name is a misnomer because Deuteronomy does not contain a second law. However, it does explain God’s revealed law at Mount Sinai to a second generation of Israelites.
In Hebrew, the fifth volume of the Pentateuch is Devarim (Words). Of course, the book contains words! How odd for the last discourse of Moses to his people to have a book title that seems to lack so much meaning. It is reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where Polonius tries to make conversation with him by asking what he is reading. To this, Hamlet makes his famous response, “Words, words, words.”
In Jewish hermeneutics, we believe in the idea intertextuality, the idea that texts are linked as commentaries on one another. A word or phrase in one context evokes a similar expression in another context.
The Book of Devarim opens with the phrase “These are the words Moses spoke to all Israel.” It is interesting that a man who initially refused God’s invitation to lead his people due to his inability to be a man of words [ish devarim] (Exodus 4:10) becomes the most eloquent God spokesperson in all of history.
The Psalmist declares: “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall declare Your praise” (51:15). In our encounter with God, the desired goal is to not have words come from us, but through us. Moses’ words were not his own, but those of the Divine presence speaking through his lips. In fact, a prophet in Hebrew is called a “navi,” which derives from the expression “niv si’fatayim – fruit of the lips” (Isaiah 57:19). The prophet, through the movement of his lips, acts as the intermediary, receiving the holy words emanating from God and revealing them to people.
Prophet Hosea declares: “Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God. Your sins have been your downfall! Take words [devarim] with you and return to the Lord” (14:1-2). While many commentators interpret these verses to mean repentance, there is a more fundamental notion at play – our relationship with God is based upon words; the Torah.
The covenantal promise made by God to Abraham almost 4,000 years ago is why the Jewish people exist today.
Moses makes that quite clear in the chapter that deals with exile and return: “When all these words [devarim, often – wrongly – translated as “things”], the blessings and curses I have set before you, come upon you and you take them to heart” (Devarim 30). Israel survived because it never lost devarim, “the words” which bound it to God and Him to it.
Moses goes beyond telling them the need to obey the rules, giving them the secret to making the story of the previous generation their own: “Impress My words upon your heart... and teach them to your children – reciting them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up” (11:18– 19). Learning is not simply a means to acquire information. Rather, learning is an active process that is primarily about making meaning.
The book of Devarim creates the possibility that if God’s presence is to be made manifest in our world, it will be in the words of those who pursue with love the will of the living God. Calling the fifth book of Pentateuch “Devarim” is not insignificant. The word lives and gives life to the people who dedicate their life to them.
David Nekrutman is the executive director for the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation in Efrat, Israel. All comments should go to