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Parashat D’varim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22)

“On the other side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab,
Moses undertook to expound this Torah, saying.” (Deuteronomy 1:5)

Parashat D’varim opens the fifth and final book of the Torah (also called D’varim and known in English as Deuteronomy). It comprises five speeches by Moses, who recaps the desert wanderings and expounds on the many mitzvot, or commandments, God has given.

The book of D’varim references more than 100 mitzvot, of which more than 70 appear in the Torah for the first time. This raises two questions: why are the new laws not introduced earlier and why are the old laws repeated? Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888; German rabbi considered the father of modern Orthodox Judaism) explains: leaving the wilderness and crossing the Jordan into Canaan creates an entirely new context for Jewish life. Instead of living in isolation, the Israelites will live among larger societies. Instead of living in close proximity as one community, the tribes will be spread out geographically. Instead of one leader, there will be leaders for each tribe. And instead of relying only upon God’s protection, each community now must provide protection to its vulnerable. In short, everything the Israelites know is about to change.  Big time.

The older laws address the Israelites’ relationship with God, which can be observed anywhere. Since they soon will be exposed to foreign beliefs and behaviors, they bear repeating. The new laws address human relationships necessary for a civil society rooted in a settled, rather than nomadic, lifestyle. Issues of land ownership, liability, and charity were irrelevant while wandering in the desert, with God providing for everything. D’varim recognizes the monumental changes about to occur and so prepares the Israelites for its Jewish life in the coming generations.

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom

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