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Parashas Devarim – The Pursuit of Wisdom

Written by Daniel Sandground

Parashas Devarim – The Pursuit of Wisdom

This week we start the final book of the Torah, Devarim. The book of Devarim is also known as ‘Mishneh Torah’ which literally means ‘review of the Torah’, nevertheless Devarim does contain over seventy new Mitzvahs which were not previously mentioned in the Torah. Immediately from the first words of Devarim we see the Torah state that… “these are the words that Moshe spoke to all of Israel” [1:1]. The entire book was therefore said to the nation by Moshe during his last five weeks of life in which he undertook his last will and testament to his beloved people by warning them of the potential dangers which would lie for the course of Jewish people in the immediate future (when conquering the land of Canaan) and beyond. Throughout the book of Devarim we also see Moshe inspire the people to rise to their expectations as Hashem’s chosen people and this all culminates in his final blessings to the nation which we see in the last Parasha, Vezos Haberachah. Although the book of Devarim is in essence a review of the previous books of the Torah we see that it only records and repeats those parts which would be relevant to Israel’s new life in Eretz Yisrael. This view is expressed by Rabbi Hirschwho claims that the book of Devarim was to be ‘Israel’s introduction to the new life they would have to forge in the land’. Now that they would have to leave the Midbar and would therefore be divorced from previous support such as the Clouds of Glory, the Manna and of course Moshe himself, they would have to learn how to plough, plant and harvest the land. They would have to establish courts, a government and a judicial system. They would need to set up social support systems such as providing for and protecting the needy and helpless. They would also of course need strong faith and discipline in order to avoid the temptations and dangers which would lie ahead. The book of Devarim was Moshe’s reaction to this with all these subjects covered in his final testimony to the people. We see from the differing language used within Devarim compared to the other books of the Torah that this Book was not written directly from the mouth of Hashem through immediate prophecy, as were the previous four books. The Vilna Gaon comments on these differences… “The first four books were heard directly from the mouth of Hashem, through the throat of Moshe. Not so with Devarim. Israel heard the words of this book the same way they heard the words of the prophets who came after Moshe. G-d would speak to the prophet on one day, and on a later day he would go and make the vision known to Israel. Accordingly, at the time the prophet spoke to the people, the word of G-d had already been removed from him… so too the Book of Devarim was heard from the mouth of Moshe”.

Parashas Devarim begins with what appears to be some hidden rebuke from Moshe to the nation. Moshe begins his words of this final book of the Torah with a list of reminders to the nation of their previous downfalls. According to Rashi these sins were not mentioned explicitly as he did not want to embarrass or offend the listeners, instead he alluded to them using place names or discreet references… for example instead of mentioning the incident with the spies, Moshe talks about ‘פארן/Paran’, the place where the spies were sent from and instead of acknowledging the Sin of the Golden Calf, Moshe uses the words ‘ודי זהב/and Di Zahav’ which literally means ‘abundance of gold’ and alludes to the fact that G-d blessed the Jews with an abundance of gold when they left Egypt, but they used His gift to make the Golden Calf. So why does Moshe start off with this criticism, reminding them of the long string of sins and rebellions that marked the forty years since the exodus? As we see from the first words of this week’s sedra, Israel were “on the other side of the Jordan” [1:1], facing the land which they were to inhabit and surely confident that they would be able to uphold a society and maintain their own individual lifestyles based on the Torah’s teachings… in their minds they genuinely would have considered the possibility of succumbing to the alien influences and temptations of Canaan as an impossibility as they were on such a high level. What Moshe therefore does, through his rebuke, is to remind them that if their parents could sin when they were surrounded by daily miracles and had Moshe as leader, surely there would be greater dangers without these constant reminders of Hashem’s presence. This subtle yet quite obvious reminder therefore spoke volumes of Moshe’s immediate concern that the nations would naturally drop off the derech of Torah when placed into a more physically orientated environment.

The sedra continues with Moshe Rabbeinu recalling all of the events that transpired in the Midbar and within this he recalled how there was a need to appoint judges to assist him in establishing justice for the people. This incident was referring to that of Yisro’s advice which is found in none other than Parashas Yisro, all the way back in the book of Shemos where he effectively advised Moshe to set up a judicial system questioning… “why do you sit alone with all the people standing by you from morning to evening” [Shemos, 18:14]. In reaction to this, Moshe set up a system whereby he took ‘distinguished’ men to appoint as heads over the people, “leaders of thousands, leaders of hundreds, leader of fifties, and leaders of tens, and officers” [1:15]. The mefarshim question why such an excessive number of judges were needed, a total of 131 per thousand people. The Vilna Gaon explains that each category of leaders was to have a unique function whereby the leaders of thousands were commanders of soldiers, the leaders of hundreds were judges, those over fifty taught Torah, and those over ten carried out police duties. And the offices? Rashi explains that these offices were assigned to enforce the decisions of the courts which according to the Ramban would involve them patrolling the streets and markets, bringing wrongdoers to the courts. Within Moshe’s specification we see that he asks the nation to “provide for yourselves distinguished men, who are wise/חכמים (chochamim), understanding/נבנים (nevonim), and well known/ידעים (yido’im) to your tribes”… according to Chazal, Moshe in fact struggled to find enough people with all the attributes suggested by Yisro! So what exactly were these requirements? The Vilna Goan in Mishley explains that there are three main levels of wisdom;

1.The first is ‘Chochmah’ which translates as knowledge, this is the achievement of pure wisdom through Torah study and ‘the gathering of facts’. This would link to the first specification of Yisro’s list.

2.The second is that of ‘Binah’, understanding. This is the stage of expanding the raw knowledge from Chochmah and extracting its implications.

3.The final requirement is that of ‘Das’ which is to connect. In order to do this appropriately one needs to have the ability to put the acquired knowledge in it’s right place where by the implications are understood and this will lead to it’s fulfilment in action.

The application of knowledge is the crowning achievement of Jewish growth, it is the trait which the leaders of the Jews, their true role-models, need to possess. Three times a day we pray for the acquirement of ‘Das’ which incorporates all of these three traits above, so important is this plea to Hashem that it comes as the first request within the ‘shemoneh esrei’. According to the Vilna Gaon, man’s intelligence is his primary characteristic and what separates us from the animals. Through knowledge we are also able to draw proper conclusions and achieve intellectual discernment. Regarding the Torah specifically, it is written by Rabbi Wolbe in Alei Shur that, if one accepts that the Torah is from Sinai then one must accept that Torah study is so powerful that it can produce a human being who has superior understanding and wisdom in both heavenly and worldly matters. On Yisro’s advice, although hard to find, Moshe was not going to settle for just anyone to fill the positions of these ‘judges’, they needed to have these great qualities as they were going to rule the roost from now on! This is what Moshe therefore required of the judges and this is also what we should require of ourselves… the pursuit of wisdom through knowledge, understand and connection.

May we all be granted Chochmah, Binah and Das so that we may serve Hashem appropriately in all ways! Shabbat Shalom and I wish everyone a smooth fast on Tish’B’Av.

Daniel Sandground, (student at Ohr Somayach Yeshivah, Jerusalem)

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