Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Devarim

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,

Parashat Devarim (Shabbat Hazon) 5759/1999

Two Topics in Parashat Devarim

Dr. Yitzhak Zefati

Chairman, Dept. of Bible

A. The older and the younger generations

Sefer Devarim, the fifth book of the Pentateuch, whose English name Deuteronomy reflects what was apparently the book's original name, Mishneh Torah (lit. "Repetition of the Law"), includes the covenant made between G-d and the younger generation, camped on the plains of Moab and about to enter the land of Canaan. This covenant parallels the Sinai covenant made after the exodus from Egypt, almost forty years earlier, with their parents, the generation that perished in the wilderness.

The conditions of this second covenant are included in speeches delivered by Moses to the Israelites before his death, in which he details the laws and regulations along with words of caution and admonishment to those who might violate the covenant and assurances for those who uphold it. These speeches are set between an introductory verse, which begins the book: "These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel" (Deut. 1:1), and a concluding verse, which summarizes its main point: "These are the terms [lit. words] of the covenant which the Lord commanded Moses to conclude with the Israelites in the land of Moab, in addition to the covenant which He had made with them at Horeb" (Deut. 28:69).

Moses' first speech, the introductory oration of the entire book, is an overview of the people's history from the Theophany at Mount Sinai until their arrival at the plains of Moab. However, since the main purpose of this historical overview is to reprove the Israelites for their sins, it is neither exhaustive nor chronological. This week's reading, Parashat Devarim (1:1-3:22), which comprises this introductory speech, presents two main stories in this overview: the first reviews the history of the parents' generation that died in the wilderness (1:6-46) and the second brings the history of the children's generation (2:1-3:29).[1]

Center stage in the first historical sketch (1:6-2:1), which comes after a long and complex prologue that tells of the time and place at which Moses was speaking (1:15), is occupied by his description of the momentous event of the sin of the spies, on account of which the Lord decreed forty years of wandering and death in the wilderness on the generation of the exodus from Egypt. The story of the spies is preceded by G-d's command to come and inherit the land: "The Lord our G-d spoke to us at Horeb, saying: You have stayed long enough at this mountain. Start out and make your way to the hill country of the Amorites ... enter the land ... " (1:6-8), but after the sin of the spies comes the period of the punishment: "Thus, after you had remained at Kadesh all that long time ... we ... skirted the hill country of Seir a long time" (1:46-2:1).

In contrast, the second historical sketch concerns the younger generation that was about to enter the land. Here Moses tells of the Israelites' journey in the direction of the promised land, along the borders of the lands of Esau, of the Moabites and of the Ammonites, and of the conquest of the land of Sihon and Og in the Transjordan. Like the first review, this one as well begins with a command from the Lord, whose language parallels the first command (1:6-8): "You have been skirting this hill country long enough; now turn north" (2:2) and concludes with the words, "Meanwhile we stayed on in the valley near Beth-peor" (3:29). These two sketches juxtapose two periods in the life of the Israelites in the wilderness: the generation of the parents with their shortcomings, and that of the younger generation with their successes.

2. Men who are wise, discerning, and experienced

Before these two historical overviews--between receiving G-d's command to leave Horeb (1:7: "Start out and make your way to the hill country of the Amorites") and carrying out this command (1:19: "We set out from Horeb and traveled the great and terrible wilderness...")--Moses incorporated into his speech the subject of appointing judges (1:9-18). This passage about appointment of judges, whose function was to assist Moses in leading the people during the great journey that lay ahead, is comprised of three passages set off from one another by the introductory formulation: Ba-et ha-hi (rendered in the New JPS Translation as "Thereupon," "further," and "at that time," respectively):[2] 1) the appointment of the judges (1:9-15); 2) Moses' instruction to the judges (1:16-17); and 3) Moses' instruction to the entire people (1:18).

The first passage (1:9-15) begins with an explanation of Moses' need of assistance in order to lessen the burden of adjudicating that fell on him: "Thereupon I said to you, 'I cannot bear the burden of you by myself. The Lord your G-d has multiplied you ... How can I bear unaided the trouble of you, and the burden, and the bickering!'" (1:9-12), and concludes with the appointment of the judges, whom Scripture calls "chiefs of thousands, chiefs of hundreds, ..." The main body of this story is recounted in Exodus 18:14-26. There, too, an explanation is given for the need to appoint judges, except that it is given by Jethro, who asks Moses, "Why do you sit [as magistrate] alone, while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?" (Ex. 18:14). "For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone" (Ex. 18:18). However there are also further differences between the two accounts.[3] To begin with, in Exodus the initiative for appointing judges came from Jethro, whereas here Moses abbreviated the account, seeing no need to mention whose initiative it had been. Secondly, in Exodus Scripture said briefly that Moses appointed the candidates, whereas here Moses went into greater length, explaining how he consulted with the people, commanding them to put forward candidates (1:13: "Pick from each of your tribes"), and only afterwards did he appoint them as judges. Thirdly, in Exodus the candidates were selected primarily according to their moral character: "men who fear G-d, trustworthy men who spurn ill-gotten gain" (Ex. 18:21), whereas in Deuteronomy Moses went on to note their intellectual capabilities: "Men who are wise, discerning, and experienced" (Deut. 1:13).[4]

In the second passage (1:16-17), which begins with the words, "I further charged your magistrates as follows...," Moses expanded on what was said in Exodus, adding instructions to the judges, including a warning to adjudicate the people's cases justly.

The third passage, which is comprised of the single verse, "Thus I instructed you, at that time, about the various things that you should do" (1:18), in a way sums up the speech in which Moses instructed the entire people, not just the judges, at that time in the Torah.[5]

This account of the appointment of judges also parallels the account in Numbers 11:11-17. There, too, near the time of journeying away from Mount Sinai, Moses expressed grave reservations about his ability to stand up to the challenge of leadership. There, however, it is not a matter of sitting in judgment for extended lengths of time or of apportioning the task of judging, but of the general difficulty in leading the people. The many complaints with which the people beset their leader at any moment of uncertainty brought Moses close to despair, so that he turned to G-d bitterly: "Why have You dealt ill with Your servant, ... that You have laid the burden of all this people upon me?" (Num. 11:11), "I cannot carry all this people by myself, for it is too much for me" (Num. 11:14). G-d answered his request and decided to give Moses partners in the task, saying, "you shall not bear it alone" (Num. 11:17). To this end, the Lord commanded Moses to gather seventy elders so that the spirit that was on him would be put upon them.

The accounts in Deuteronomy and Exodus are more closely related to each other than to the account in Numbers. Why is this? Exodus and Deuteronomy both deal with the appointment of people to help Moses in the daily task of judging disputes among the people. Therefore both the moral character (Exodus) and the intellectual character (Deuteronomy) of the judges are stressed. In contrast, Numbers speaks of adding seventy elders to serve as partners in the general leadership of the people. This task of leadership, which is too heavy a burden for any single individual to bear, requires a godly character. Hence G-d extended the spirit which originally was instilled in Moses alone and put it on them. Only in this way, through prophetic leadership, could the seventy elders who had been selected be able to help Moses bring the people to the gates of the promised land.

By understanding the structure of Moses' speeches and their aims, it becomes easier to make sense out of long stretches of text in Deuteronomy that seem at first glance to have no particular order.

[1] Not that according to the masoretic text, the latter part of chapter 3, namely verses 23-29, belong to next week's reading, Parshat Va-ethanan.

[2] On the use of this formulation, which is repeated in Deuteronomy 1-5 and 9-10 a total of fifteen times, and on the function it plays in Moses' speeches cf. S. E. Loewenstamm, "Ha-nushah 'Ba-et ha-hi' be-neumei ha-petihah be-sefer Devarim," Tarbiz 38 (1969) 99-104.

[3] These differences have been discussed by earlier as well as later commentators. Cf. Nahmanides' commentary on Deut. 1:18; D. Z. Hoffman, Deuteronomy (Hebrew translation from the German by Zvi Har Shefer), Tel Aviv 1959, pp. 30-31; and more recently, M. Weinfeld, Deuteronomy 1-11 (The Anchor Bible), 1991, pp. 139-140.

[4] The Hebrew verb yedu'im ("known") is used here in the sense of yod'im ("knowing"), i.e., wise men; also cf. the Aramaic translations of Onkelos and Targum Jonathan: "men of knowledge"; likewise, see Ecclesiastes 9:11: "Nor is bread won by the wise, nor wealth by the intelligent, nor favor by the learned"; or Job 34:2: "Listen, O wise men, to my words; you who have knowledge, give ear to me."

[5] Cf. Ex. 18:20, and Nahmanides on Deut. 1:18, s.v. "va-atzaveh etkhem."