Moses' Legacy

Rabbi Reuven Mann

Parshat Devarim initiates the fifth and final Book of the Torah, Deuteronomy (known in Hebrew as Devarim). It is unique and different from the other Books of the Torah, in that they are written in the third person while here, Moses addresses the Jews primarily in the first person.

Moses spoke these words as his career and life were coming to an end. In effect, they constitute his farewell addresses to the Jewish People. As such, they are unique in the annals of similar orations by departing leaders. That is because they are completely devoted to the moral and intellectual needs of the people. Moses does not indulge any personal motivations that leaders might have as they depart from the scene. He is focused exclusively on transmitting words of enlightenment and inspiration to the Jews. His primary concern is the perpetuation of the Torah way of life after his departure.

The most consequential virtue of Moses was his supreme humbleness. He had no desire for personal glory, and had argued with God vigorously to be excused from assuming the leadership of the Jewish People. He, in fact, protested so much that God displayed anger and Moses was, thus, coerced into assuming the position that Hashem had earmarked for him.

Moses’ tenure as leader was extremely bumpy. True, there were exalted moments, such as the gathering of the entire Nation at Mount Sinai for the Divine Revelation. The national collaboration in donating the materials and craftsmanship necessary to the successful construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) was another glorious experience. However, there were numerous moments of despair. On two separate occasions, Moses was confronted with a great calamity which threatened the continued existence of the nation: the sins of the Golden Calf and of the Spies, which brought forth Divine wrath and a threat to annihilate the Jews and start a new nation out of Moses.

Characteristically, Moses refused this great honor. He had become so committed to the Jewish People he had led forth out of Egypt that Moses asked God to “erase me from the Book that you have written” (Exodus, 32:32) if He were to terminate the existence of the Jewish Nation.

Moses’ absolute dedication to the Jewish People can be seen in his final communications to them. In his lengthy address, he concentrated on two areas: elucidation of the mitzvot (commandments) and exhortation to embrace the fundamental beliefs and ideals of Judaism. That dual purpose explains why he spoke in his own words. The original communication of the mitzvot were the exact words of Hashem and were therefore formal and abstract. Yet, however important those teachings were, they did not suffice. The great teacher cannot just repeat the words of others, however perfect they may be. He needs to reformulate and express them in terms that will make the proper impact on the minds and hearts of his audience.

Because of this principle, Moses is depicted here as “elucidating” the words of the Torah. Moses had a grasp and penetrating understanding of the mitzvot that no other teacher ever attained.

However, the Book of Devarim is not confined to the restatement of the commandments, alone. It also contains Moses’ formulation of the fundamental doctrines of the Jewish faith, such as God’s unity, omnipotence, and omniscience.

Another important idea communicated by Moses in Devarim is the reason why one is obliged to believe in the Divinity of the Torah. All other religions are based on unsubstantiated faith. It is taken for granted by most religious people that it is virtuous to believe in their religions, even in the absence of any compelling proofs or evidence.

Moses addresses the Jewish people regarding the proper basis of belief in the Torah. He never asks the Jews to have faith. Rather, he calls on them to constantly remember and appreciate the day the entire Nation gathered at Mount Sinai to witness supernatural phenomena and hear a voice from heaven proclaiming the Ten Commandments. This was a one-time event which never occurred before or since, anywhere in the world.

Judaism does not require the kind of faith that most people associate with religion. Moses never exhorts the people by saying, “You’ve just got to believe.” Instead, he urges them to use their minds. They should study the full implications of the Torah’s claim that the entire nation was gathered on Mt. Sinai to hear a voice from Heaven proclaim the “Ten Statements” (Aseret Hadibrot).

He also exhorts the Jews to intensely study their commandments, as this will lead them to recognize its divine character. He says, “You shall safeguard and perform them, for it is your wisdom and discernment in the eyes of the peoples, who shall hear all these decrees and who shall say ‘Surely a wise and discerning people is this great nation!’” (Deuteronomy 4:6). Moses here makes the claim that if one studies and elucidates the mitzvot in the proper way, its supreme wisdom will become apparent to gentiles as well as Jews.

Moses urged the Jews to recognize the intrinsic ethical and moral superiority of the Jewish religion. He asks them, “For which is a great nation that has a God that is close to it, as is Hashem, our God whenever we call to Him? And which is a great nation that has righteous decrees and ordinances, such as this entire Torah that I place before you this day?” (Deuteronomy 4:7-8).

We can now begin to appreciate the overarching importance of the Book of Devarim. The objective of Judaism is for the Jewish people to perpetuate the Torah and its way of life for all time. But how is that goal to be achieved?

Moses devoted an entire Book to showing his people the way. May we attain the proper appreciation and understanding of Torah that is essential to assuring its eternal relevance to the perfection of human life.

Shabbat Shalom.