As the Book of Deuteronomy begins this Shabbat, Moses and the people of Israel stand on the far side of the Jordan River. As rivers go, the Jordan is not nearly as impressive as the three rivers that define the geography of Pittsburgh.
The Jordan is a mere stream, a trickle, when measured against the Ohio, Allegheny and Monongahela. At its source, emerging from the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan is perhaps 50 feet wide. As it then courses down to the Dead Sea, the Jordan is no more 20 feet wide.
Thus the Book of Deuteronomy runs its course with the people of Israel hardly a stone’s throw away from the Promised Land.
Another people, with their destination so tantalizingly close, would have simply forded the Jordan. Not the Jewish people. An entire book of the Torah — the Torah’s ultimate book — is devoted to standing in one place and listening. Thus the book’s names in Hebrew and English are well suited to the substance of the book. In Hebrew, the book is called
Devarim, (words), which is taken from the first verse, “These are the words which Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan.” And in English, the name Deuteronomy is taken from two Latin words, deutero and nomos, meaning “second law” or “repetition of the law.”
By literary standards, there is no reason for the book of Deuteronomy to have been written. Why repeat the stories already told in the preceding books? But by Jewish standards, it may be the most important book of the Torah, certainly to you and to me. By its repetitive nature, Deuteronomy makes the retelling of the story as important as the events themselves when they first occur. The revelation at Sinai happened in Exodus, but the retelling of the revelation unfolds now in Deuteronomy. The revelation would be useless if its story were not repeated. Thereby the listeners become essential. Thus Deuteronomy engages us directly in Judaism’s sacred saga.
Like the Israelites on the far side of the Jordan throughout Deuteronomy, we are here to hear. And perhaps even greater than that exalted generation standing on the far side of the Jordan throughout Deuteronomy, a stone’s throw away from the Promised Land, we are here to hear each one of the 79,847 words in the Torah.
Next Shabbat’s Torah portion will underscore our task with the famous exhortation Shema Yisrael, “Hear O Israel. …” But this Shabbat’s Torah portion, Devarim, true to its title, “Words,” offers us an exhortation greater still, Adonai Eloheicheh Ha-holech Lifneichem, “Adonai your God is the One who goes before you.”
How is it that Adonai our God always goes before us? By grasping that we are here to hear, but more important and pointedly, we hear in order to do what God asks of us: mitzvot. With each mitzvah we keep, God goes before us. We not only draw closer to the Promised Land, the whole world draws closer.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)