A Unique Work

July 11, 2010

6 min read


Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22 )

These are the words [things] which Moshe spoke to all of Yisrael... (Devarim 1:1)

My holy father suggested an idea that helps us to understand the very nature of the Book of Deuteronomy, which the above verse introduces. This book is qualitatively different from the other four. Our Sages tell us that the curses in the Book of Deuteronomy were said by Moshe himself. We may assume from this that the material in Devarim, while of course presented by God to Moshe, contains more human input, however slight, than the previous four books. Perhaps it can be considered an in-between stage, bridging the gap between the main Written Torah (Torah SheBichsav) and the Oral Torah (Torah SheBa'al Peh). Devarim contains elements of both - it is the written word of God, like the Torah SheBichsav, but with an element of human content, like the Torah SheBa'al Peh. We may apply this idea by examining the following statement from our Sages:

Rabbi Ada ben Rabbi Chanina said, "Had Yisrael not sinned, they would have been given only the Five Books of the Torah and the Book of Yehoshua, which contains the boundary details of Eretz Yisrael." (Nedarim 22b)

It is not possible that this statement means that had klal Yisrael not sinned in the desert they would have been given only the Torah SheBichsav and not the Torah SheBa'al Peh. The oral law constitutes the hidden depth and internal life of the Torah, and as such, it is indispensable. Also, as certain groups have discovered to their detriment, the Written Torah is totally unworkable without the traditions of the oral law. How would we know how to make tefillin or tzitzis, for example? Every aspect of Jewish life is dependent upon the details provided by the Torah SheBa'al Peh. What, then, do the Sages intend with this sweeping statement? An answer may be provided by yet another midrash, which discusses the giving of the Torah:

The Rabbis said that the statement itself [referring to each of the Ten Commandments] went around to each member of klal Yisrael and said to him, "Do you accept me upon you? I contain so many mitzvos, so many laws, so many punishments, so many decrees, so many commandments, so many a fortiori inferences, so many rewards..." And they said, "Yes, yes." (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1:13)

Underlying this is the concept that at some level the Aseres HaDibros (Ten Commandments) contain all of the 613 commandments of the Torah. The acceptance of the entire Torah system was dependent upon the members of klal Yisrael accepting the basic Ten Commandments. This is very difficult for us to understand - it would be practically impossible for us to generate the 613 commandments from the list of ten. But at the time of Divine revelation at Sinai, klal Yisrael had tremendous clarity of vision and spiritual power; they were able to detect the nuances and implications of every word spoken to them by God. No explanation was necessary, for as God spoke to them they were able to appreciate the entire Torah system which the Aseres HaDibros encapsulate. Had they retained that spiritual level, they would have been able to appreciate every nuance of the Torah forevermore. It is true that after the first two commandments had been spoken by God, klal Yisrael asked Moshe to speak to them, as they found direct communion with God too overpowering; but they nevertheless remained extremely spiritually sensitive. Had they not damaged themselves with the sin of the golden calf, they would have remained able to detect the details of each mitzvah and its explanation directly from the text.

For example, the Torah's short presentation of the mitzvah of tefillin would, to the highly developed mind, imply all of the laws which lie in this practice. Every nuance and detail of the boxes, straps, and scrolls which constitute tefillin would have been manifest to them, without the need for any further explanation.

We may assume that this would have been true, not just for the halachic material within the Torah, but also for every ethical concept, fundamental of faith, and homiletical device. All of these, in all of their rich minutiae, would have been apparent to klal Yisrael from analysis of the Torah text alone. This idea is actually mentioned in the Talmud:

Is there anything written in the prophetic writings which is not hinted at by the Torah itself? (Ta'anis 9a)

But, as we have mentioned, the sin of the Golden Calf prevented this situation from continuing. They lowered themselves with their error, limiting their understanding and depth of perception of the Torah. This necessitated the transmission of the Torah SheBa'al Peh to explain the Torah text and invest it with meaning.

This has remained the situation to this day. The inherent connection between the two types of Torah must never be lost; indeed, Talmudic scholars throughout the ages have striven to harmonize the two, exerting great mental energy to trace laws in the oral tradition to their roots in the written law. This is not merely an intellectual exercise, for it attempts to return to the sinless state of mind which existed in klal Yisrael, in which the text of the Torah SheBichsav revealed the laws of the Torah SheBa'al Peh. This resolution by great Torah scholars is the path through which the sin of the calf and its ramifications may be rectified.

The particular value of the Book of Deuteronomy should now be apparent. As we have said, this book is a sort of go-between, bridging the gap from written to oral law. Moshe himself said the content of the Book of Deuteronomy. This meant that it was not as difficult for klal Yisrael to relate to it as to the other four books, as it had some human content, albeit minimal. As such, Devarim is particularly replete with easy-to-spot laws and derivations, more readily detectable than those in the earlier books. It is easier for the student to extract textual hints and concealed laws from this book and to see the root of oral traditions within it. The ethical messages of Devarim are much more explicit than those of the other four books; they are more direct and more easily appreciated. All of this follows from its split nature as a book halfway between oral and written law.

This will give us an insight into the feeling engendered by Moshe's great speech to the nation before his death. These words, as we have seen, were in many ways more transparent than anything which preceded them. As such, they awakened a feeling of power and spirituality which had not been experienced since klal Yisrael had stood at Mount Sinai to accept the Torah. At that stage, as now, they felt able to penetrate the text to understand the will of God in all its glory.

Excerpted from Shem MiShmuel by the Sochatchover Rebbe, rendered into English by Rabbi Zvi Belovski, published by Targum Press. Click here to order.


Next Steps