Past Perfect: The Book of Deuteronomy

It is a product of the words of our teacher Moses told to the Jewish people in the eastern plains of the Jordan Valley during the last months of his life.

The Book of Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Torah, differs from the previous four books in language, style and content. It is a product of the words of our teacher Moses told to the Jewish people in the eastern plains of the Jordan Valley during the last months of his life. Jewish tradition ascribes to this book equal divinity with the four books that precede it. Nevertheless, nuances of difference - even as to methods of Oral Law interpretation - exist between Deuteronomy and rest of the Torah. Many commentators point out that the first four books of the Torah are, so to speak, authored by God and written down and confirmed by Moses. Deuteronomy is of Moses's authorship but confirmed by God, thus granting those words a divinity of Torah that no other human words can achieve. The words of Moses to the people of Israel in Deuteronomy are very strong and sometimes quite critical and sharp. He recounts for them all of their failings and rebellions, pettiness and shortage of vision. The generation of the desert failed the challenge of freedom that confronted them. Even though they were at the same time the greatest generation of Jewish history - the generation that received the Torah at Mount Sinai - they were an unfulfilled generation. Moses is saddened not only by what happened to his generation but by the realization of what might have been. And perhaps that is the type of sadness - the realization of opportunities lost and that will never return - that is most bitter and depressing. Deuteronomy suffered differing fates over the millennia of Jewish life. In Kings, we read that it was apparently hidden away from public view and perhaps even knowledge for a period of time, until it was rediscovered by the High Priest Hilkiah during the reign of Joash, the king of Judah. Scholars have long wrestled with the problem of how such an occurrence could have happened - an entire book of the Torah lost and forgotten. Many theories have been advanced, but I know of no satisfactory answer to this occurrence, except for the simple truth that if attention is not paid to the Torah then it may disappear, even from the midst of the kingdom of Judah. Perhaps because of this occurrence, Moses described for us the mitzva of hakhel that occurred once every seven years, when the king of Israel would read the entire book of Deuteronomy to the masses of Israel that assembled in the Temple's courtyard for the occasion. He foresaw that there would be a day that Deuteronomy would be forgotten - it is not pleasant to listen to criticism, to be reminded of faults and lost opportunities. People prefer to put such scrolls away and not be troubled by them. Therefore at least once every seven years the people have to be reminded of the contents of Deuteronomy. The book is the wake-up call to the Jewish people - remember what happened and don't repeat those errors. The Jewish people have a custom that on the night of Hoshana Raba, the conclusion of the Days of Judgment and Mercy, Deuteronomy is read publicly. This is undoubtedly a remembrance of the mitzva of hakhel in Temple times. But it is more than that. It is the penance of the Jewish people for once having dared to think that Deuteronomy could safely be forgotten. It is our form of apology to Moses for ignoring all of his final words to us and for allowing ourselves to be deluded into thinking that we could pick and choose among the words of the Torah and adopt only those phrases that were pleasant to our ears and soothing to our egos. Deuteronomy is read in the late summer months - a time of vacations and a slowing of life's usual hectic pace. Because of this, the book does not perhaps receive the attention it deserves. Its reading occurs at a wrong time in our calendar of yearly life. Too bad, for it really is important for us to study and absorb the lessons of this great and holy book. Moses speaks to all generations. We should pay attention to his words. The writer is a noted scholar, historian, speaker and educator.