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You have probably heard it said that Devarim is a summary of the preceding books of the Torah. While that’s not actually accurate, the current sidra, Nitzavim, may be seen as a summary of Devarim!
Devarim actually has three overarching themes, touchpoints that Moses returns to over and over again throughout his speeches. These are: abolish all signs of idolatry wherever they are to be found and wipe out the idolaters; love God and keep all of God’s mitzvot as your sign of that love; and behave ethically because only through proper behavior will you merit winning and keeping the promised land.
Structurally, sefer Devarim contains the final speeches or sermons that Moses delivered just before the Israelites were to cross the Jordan to begin their conquest of Canaan. Moses’ sermons can be summarized as follows: ch. 1–4 contain his introduction which recapitulates the events leading up to the Israelites’ preparing for their conquest; ch. 5–26 is the main speech and covers the love of God and the mitzvot which are to be observed in the land; ch. 27–28 contain Moses’ description of the blessings that Israel will enjoy and curses they will incur if they observe or ignore the mitzvot; and ch. 29–30, where we are today, wraps up everything said earlier. Today Moses launches into his last discourse, summarizing his other speeches and yet again rebuking the people following the pattern of his previous rebukes.
This speech actually begins at the beginning of chapter 29 in last week’s reading. (Even though no one who was a slave in Egypt was to be among those Israelites permitted to enter Canaan, Moses comments in last week’s reading that, “You have seen with your own eyes what I did to Pharaoh in the land of Egypt…” (Deut. 29:2) True, some of the older Israelites might have been children at the time of the Exodus and thus were not included in the punishment of their parents. However, the vast majority of the current generation did not witness the events preceding the Exodus. This is a strange contradiction.) The chapter starts with Moses mentioning the Exodus, and today’s parashah continues with his review of God’s establishment of the Covenant; a diatribe against idolatry; and a description of how God will destroy the land if the people fail to obey. Notice that the sense of this comment is not conditional—not “if you don’t behave, then God will uproot you from the land”—it’s “God uprooted you.”
Then, Moses turns to a description of God’s love and in a brilliant and moving section, insists that keeping the mitzvot is actually not difficult, it’s really simple to do and the benefits would be so great. He wraps up his comments by exhorting his listeners to choose life, to love God, observe the mitzvot, and keep faith in God.
Moses mentioned many, if not most, of these topics in his earlier sermons. What’s the reason for the repetition—is this section intended to be a summary, or do these issues have some deeper importance?
One of the underlying elements of the earlier sermons is the Covenant and its vital importance for the Israelites. The Covenant is invoked in the sections of the sermons that cover the love of God and the giving of the land. It’s also an important part of the relating of the mitzvot and the other regulations mentioned in the third discourse. In this final sermon, Moses emphasizes that:
You’re standing today, all of you, in front of Adonai your God… for you to enter into the covenant of Adonai, your God… which [He] is making with you today… And I am not making this covenant… with you alone, but with the one who is here standing with us today and with those not here today... (Deut. 29:9, 13–14 but also see 5:2–3)
In other words, the Covenant is with the current as well as the future generations. That the Covenant is regarded as so important is shown in its renewal at this time, forty years later (Deut. 29:12–15). The purpose of this “additional” covenant seems to be to ensure that those who did not participate at Sinai would now be covered by its terms as they prepared to enter the Promised Land.
Therefore, the “review” that takes place in this sidra consists of an explanation of why this “new covenant” is needed. Moses needs to affirm that following the mitzvot is not an optional choice; those who were not at Sinai cannot use that as the reason to “opt out” of their part in fulfilling the Covenant made there. Thus, the Covenant is binding on all generations of Israel and on God as well; Israel will love God and keep the mitzvot and God will ensure that Israel will prosper in the Land, keeping God’s mitzvot and be God’s nation (and, in the event of exile, will ensure their return to the Land). To counter the claim that keeping the mitzvot is too difficult, Moses asserts that by loving of God and by keeping the proper attitude one can be observant; that it’s not that difficult to do—one has the freedom to choose his path.
Moses summarizes this succinctly:
See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. For I command you today to love God and walk in His ways [note reference to ch. 6 through 11] and to keep His laws and ordinances [as covered in ch. 12 through 26] that you may thrive and increase and that God will bless you in the Land that you are about to conquer. Should you not listen, I declare today that you shall certainly perish and not endure in the Land… that you are to conquer. (30:15–18)
Then Moses concludes with what can only be compared to a coach’s pep talk to his team before turning them loose onto the playing field.
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