Devarim: Rabbi Abraham

By Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum

Torah Reading: DEVARIM, Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22
Isaiah 1:1-27.


As always, we commence the reading of the book of DEVARIM (Deuteronomy), the last of the Five Books of Moses, on the Shabbos preceding the fast of Tisha Be’Av (9th Av) commemorating the destruction of the Holy Temple. Tisha Be’Av is a call to Teshuvah (repentance), setting us on course for the season of Teshuvah during the months of Av and especially Elul, in preparation for the coming New Year and the Days of Awe. Our study of DEVARIM will continue for the whole of this period, until we conclude the annual cycle of the Torah reading at the end of the festival of Succos, on Simchas Torah.

The themes of DEVARIM are appropriate for this period. The Book of DEVARIM is the Torah’s “mouth”, summarizing all that has gone before in the “main body” of the Torah. DEVARIM calls to the inner ear of the soul of Israel to hear the essential message of the Torah. Each of the twelve months of the year is integrally connected with one of the twelve tribes and one of the twelve basic human faculties (Sefer Yetzirah). The month of Av corresponds to the Tribe of Shimon and the faculty of hearing (see Genesis 29:33). It is significant that the phrase “SHEMA YISRAEL! Hear, O Israel” recurs in four key passages in the book of DEVARIM. The message is that we must “Hear the words of the wise!” (Proverbs 22:17). “These are the words (DEVARIM) which Moses spoke.” (Deut. 1:1) — “SOF DAVAR, the last word, after everything has been heard: fear G-d” (Kohelet 12:13).

We find in the opening verses of our parshah that Moses began the concluding discourses of his career “in the fortieth year, in the eleventh month on the first of the month” (Deut. 1:3). This was on the first day of the month of Shevat (Jan.-Feb.), thirty-seven days before Moses ascended Mount Nevo to gaze over the Land of Israel and leave the world on 7 Adar. Each of the six winter months is thematically connected with its corresponding summer month. Just as Shevat, fifth of the winter months, is the eleventh month of the year counting from Nissan, so the month of Av, fifth of the summer months, is the eleventh month of the year counting from Tishrei. The months of Shevat and Av are particularly propitious for deeper understanding of the Torah, and it is therefore fitting that Moses’ concluding discourses, delivered in the month of Shevat, are the focus of our Torah study during the month of Av.

Moses’ concluding discourses constitute a Covenant which he struck between G-d and Israel in the Plains of Moab, just as he had struck a Covenant between G-d and Israel at Sinai forty years earlier (see Deut. 28:69). At the end of the forty years wandering in the wilderness, Moses was now the undisputed leader of Israel. The rebellious generation of the Exodus had all died in the wilderness, to be replaced by the new generation that stood before him now, poised to enter the land under Joshua. All the challenges to Moses leadership — the Golden Calf, the sin of the Ten Spies, the rebellion of Korach, the sin of Baal Pe’or, etc. — had been overcome and were now part of history. In DEVARIM, Moses again and again returns to this history, in order to draw out its lessons for the future.

Thus the opening verse of our parshah of DEVARIM appears on the surface to give the location in which Moses delivered his discourse. However, since the various locations mentioned in the verse are all somewhat different, they are construed by the Aramaic Targum and biblical commentators as being a series of allusions to the various sins of the past and the lessons that were to be learned from them (see Rashi on Deut. 1:1). It is with this veiled reproof to the nation that Moses began his final task as leader: to forge the thousands and thousands of Israel — who were “like the stars of the heavens for a multitude” (Deut. 1:10) — into a single, unified, purposeful nation that would be worthy of entering the land promised to Abraham and inheriting it for eternity. Thus it is that the book of Deuteronomy begins with reproof but ends with blessing — “And this is the blessing which Moses, man of G-d, blessed the Children of Israel before his death. Happy are you, Israel! Who is like you, a people saved by HaShem? . Your enemies will waste away for you, and you will tread upon their high places” (Deut. ch. 33 v. 1 & v. 29).

Throughout Deuteronomy, Moses repeatedly addresses the people by the name of Israel. Not only does the name Israel carry the connotation of victory, “for you have struggled with G-d and with men, and you have prevailed” (Gen. 32:28). The letters of the name Israel also include the word YASHAR, “straight”, “upright”. This is even more explicit in the other biblical name for the Hosts of Israel – YESHURUN (Deut. 32:15; 33:26). The names Israel and Yeshurun indicate that when the people are united and purposeful under the sole, unchallenged leadership of Moses, the archetypal Tzaddik, they are the epitome of order and rectification. (Kabbalistically, YOSHER, the “upright” scheme of the Sefirot, indicates order and repair, as opposed to IGULIM, the “circular” scheme, indicating repeated cycles of disrepair and chaos.)

Since the issue of leadership is so crucial, it is the first raised by Moses in his discourses, after recounting how G-d had told him to leave Mount Sinai and begin the journey to the Land of Israel. It was far from easy to lead a people as fractious and argumentative as this. In order for Moses’ leadership to permeate to all levels of the people, it was necessary to establish a hierarchical system of “captains of thousands and captains of hundreds, captains of fifties and captains of tens, and police”. The verses in our parshah defining the necessary qualities of the people’s leaders and judges and explaining how they are to adjudicate (Deut. 1:13-17) constitute the main foundation of the Torah laws of judges and judicial procedure. These deserve particular attention today, when the absence of leadership of true integrity and caliber is the bane of all our lives.


Moses’ discourse in parshas DEVARIM covers some of the key events in the forty years wandering in the Wilderness and the lessons to be derived from them. These include the Sin of the Ten Spies, which is of particular relevance to us this week as we approach Tisha Be’Av, since this is not only the anniversary of the destruction of the Temple but also of the evil report given by the spies in the Wilderness, the ultimate cause of the destruction of the Temple. Similarly, the rectification of LASHON HARA, evil speech, is one of the main preconditions for the rebuilding of the Temple.

Moses’ historical survey retraces the final stages of the journey of the Children of Israel to the Land, including their circuiting of the lands of the Edomites, the Moabites and the Ammonites and their conquest of Sichon king of the Emorites and Og king of Bashan. The original narrative of these journeys and conquests was given in the later parshiyos of the book of BAMIDBAR (Numbers) — CHUKAS, MATOS and MAS’EY.

The Children of Israel were forbidden to try to conquer the territories of the Edomites, the Moabites and the Ammonites. These three territories were among the ten promised to Abraham (together with those of the seven Canaanite nations), but they were forbidden to the Children of Israel (until in time to come) because they were already in the hands of Abraham’s descendants or associates. The Edomites were the children of Esau, Abraham’s grandson, while the Moabites and Ammonites were the descendants of the daughters of Lot. Lot had been rewarded with these territories because of his loyalty to Abraham in Egypt by not revealing that Sarah was Abraham’s wife (Genesis ch. 12).

Moses introduces some prehistory into his historical account by explaining how the Edomites, Moabites and Ammonites conquered their respective territories from the frightening prehistoric giants who inhabited them previously. For: ” ‘He explains the power of His works to His people give them the inheritance of the nations’ (Psalm 111:6) — for if the nations of the world say to Israel, ‘You are robbers because you have conquered the lands of seven peoples,’ they can reply to them: ‘All the earth belongs to the Holy One, blessed be He; He created it and gave it to whom he saw fit. When he wanted, He gave it to them, and when he wanted, he took it from them and gave it to us’ ” (Rashi on Genesis 1:1).

Kabbalistically, the Seven Canaanite Nations correspond to the broken vessels of the seven lower Sefirot (from CHESSED down to MALCHUT). The conquest of the Land of the Canaanites and its transformation into the Land of Israel parallels the rectification of these seven broken vessels (IGULIM) and their reconstitution in “upright” form, YOSHER = Israel. The territories of Seir, Moab and Ammon correspond respectively to the three upper Sefirot of Keter, Chochmah and Binah. These will become the inheritance of the true heirs of Abraham in time to come, when the cycle is complete and the world attains perfect rectification.

The Land of Israel was given to Abraham as part of the Covenant. The sign of the Covenant is BRIS MILAH, the circumcision, in which the foreskin is cut off and the membrane over the organ peeled away, signifying the peeling off and removal of the husks of evil that conceal holiness. In order to conquer the Land of Israel, it was first necessary to conquer the two giant kings who were the main bulwarks of the Canaanites: Sichon king of the Emorites and Og king of Bashan. Sichon corresponds to the foreskin, while Og corresponds to the membrane (ARI). The removal of these “gigantic” evil husks could be accomplished only by Moses, King of Israel: “And there was a king in Yeshurun, when the heads of the people gathered, the tribes of Israel together” (Deut. 33:5).

“All that HaShem your God did to these two kings, so HaShem will do to all the kingdoms to which you are passing over. Do not fear them, for HaShem your G-d, He will fight for you!” (Deut. 3:21-2).

May we see the restoration of Israel and the rebuilding of the Temple quickly in our times!

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