Listen to the ‘​Words’: They Come From Below



Among the books of the Torah, only this one begins by attributing its subject matter to Moses: "These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel." This week's portion actually begins Moses' final speech, his farewell before handing power over to Joshua, who'll take the Jewish people into the Holy Land. But if the Torah is Divinely authored, doesn't the book of Deuteronomy challenge that concept?

If we use its Greek title, the answer is yes. Translated as the "second law," Deuteronomy suggests that Moses' charge in the fields of Moab stands apart from the rest of Torah. The other four books came from on high, this one, from below.

The book's Hebrew name doesn't clear up the issue. Known as the Mishneh Torah — a "copy" of the law — its subject suggests repetition, a retelling of events and statutes. It might even appear extraneous.

But the devarim, or "words," between this portion and the rest of Torah are more than human utterances. Tradition identifies this book as the highest form of prophecy: Prior to this week's portion, Moses hears a command from the Almighty and delivers it to the people. Here, on the other hand, it's as if the Divine Will co-opts Moses' being; it's Moses' throat, but not his words.

The concept, far from being metaphysical, has implications in our daily lives. It reminds us that when we approach the Torah, we're not grasping at the unattainable. Rather, Torah, though rooted in the infinite, also can permeate this lowest of worlds.

Prior to entering Israel, Jewish life consisted of gathering manna, a food that miraculously appeared six days each week. In the desert, the Israelites followed a pillar of fire, but in the Holy Land, their descendants would be required to till the soil. Moses shows that perfection is a melding of Torah with physical exertion.

This week's portion illustrates this point. In two brief chapters, Moses summarizes the journey from Sinai through the desert, book-ended by the sin of the spies and the defeat, 39 years and a generation later, of Kings Sihon of Heshbon and Og of Bashan.

Near the end of this introduction, Moses reviews the battlefield: The Jews find themselves across from the Jordan River because the Kings of Edom, Moab and Ammon refused passage. It's quite a distance from the more southern spot of Mount Seir, which is where the first generation was meant to enter the Land of Israel.

The medieval sage Rashi notes that Abraham was promised the land of 10 nations, but after Moses, the Jewish people claim only the seven Canaanite nations. Edom, Moab and Ammon, he says, will be the future allotment in the Messianic Era.

Chasidic thought identifies the seven nations as a human being's seven emotive attributes. The task of the present era, then, is to purify the emotional realm by choosing love of your fellow over love of yourself, by eschewing anger, pride and so on. The three other nations represent the intellectual faculties known by Kabbalists as wisdom, understanding and knowledge.

Consequently, the whole of history can be seen as the conquering of our animalistic tendencies in striving to bring the Divine down into the physical realms. Ultimately, the time will come when, as the last verse of this week's Haftorah declares: "Zion will be redeemed through justice, and those who repent there through righteousness."

Rabbi Joshua Runyan, former news editor of the Jewish Exponent, is editor of News. E-mail him at: jrunyan@


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