Is the Book of Devarim just an early example of a great leader in the twilight of his career writing a professional memoir?
Instead of giving courage to the Hebrew nation poised to enter the Land of Canaan, Vaetchanan is filled with frustrations: Moshe pleading with God to accompany them and repeatedly warning the Israelites not to stray into idol worship.
His reflections occasionally differ widely from the stories told in Shemot or Bamidbar. A careful reader of Devarim will spot these and cry out for explanations.
One example is Moshe’s statement that he was denied entry to Canaan – not because he ‘struck the rock’ but because of his leadership failure during the Sin of the Spies. Another is changing the fourth of the Ten Commandments – from Remember (Zakhor) to Guard (Shamor).
But the fifth book of Torah is far more than a memoir. It presents a spiritual challenge to the generation that would inherit the land of Canaan. And to us, 3,300 years later, it offers insight into the relationship between God, Moshe and the Jewish people.
Moshe repeatedly referred to God’s promises made to our forefathers. He explained (in a passage read at Pesah Seder), that ‘fulfilling God’s Mitzvot will be considered righteousness’ (Deut 6:25).
This links back to God taking Abraham to look at the stars and promising ‘so too will be the abundance of your offspring’ (Gen 15:6) where Abraham’s belief in God’s promise was also considered ‘righteousness’. The Hebrew word for righteousness is Tsedakah – it implies doing something generously and without hope for ulterior gain.
Our relationship with the Almighty is mirrored in our actions. The Shema commands that we love God with ‘all our heart, all our soul and all our might’. When we put God in the forefront of our minds, it creates relationship and connection. Doing so engender God’s love for us – an invaluable lesson from Moshe’s 40 years of leadership experience.
Rabbi Jeff Berger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org