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Why is the 5th Book of the Jewish Torah (D’varim) called Deuteronomy

Insights into this week’s Torah reading.
In English the Book of Dvarim, which we begin this Shabbat, is Deuteronomy. The Hebrew name is easy to understand: “Dvarim” is the first important word in the text. But Deuteronomy?

It is from Greek and was introduced by the Septuagint; its meaning is “Second Law”. This is actually closer to the Hebrew “Mishneh Torah”, from Deut. 17:18, which is the rabbinic term for the Book. It is not so much a Second Law as a restatement of earlier commandments, some of them promulgated nearly forty years earlier when the people stood at Mount Sinai.

The legal tone is unmistakable, but it is wrapped up in poetry and spirituality that makes it an especially memorable farewell message from Moses, summing up his life’s work on the verge of the entry into the Promised Land and his own death.

One might get the impression that the Moses who is delivering the message is a legislator, but Ahad HaAm rightly points out that “lawmaker” is not the best way of summing up the great leader. Nor is “general” or any of the other epithets that attempt to characterise the long and distinguished career of Moses. As far as Ahad HaAm is concerned, the best word for Moses is “prophet”, not in the popular sense of someone who foretells the future but in his capacity as the spokesman whose task is to forthtell the word of God.

Jewish tradition accepts that Moses was the father (in the sense of chief) of the prophets but its general term for him is not “Moshe HaNavi” but “Moshe Rabbenu”, “Moses our Teacher”. If Abraham founded the Jewish people, Moses founded Judaism – the faith that hears the Divine teaching and dedicates its history to studying the Word and passing it down from generation to generation.

Form or Content

Starting with the opening verses of D’varim, we become the audience for Moses’ series of farewell speeches. Impressive to read, we wonder whether the orations were equally impressive to listen to. After all, Moses was marred by a speech impediment: he was k’vad peh, k’vad lashon, “heavy of mouth, heavy of tongue”.

The Midrash has a story about how Moses developed these problems, but that is a question for another day. For the moment, let’s ask what audiences are moved by – charismatic personality, silver-tongued eloquence, or sheer content?

The modern-day answer is probably the first and second, because television charisma is so important in popular culture. Body language, physical image, gestures and technique all influence our opinion of public figures. They might be saying the most banal things, and sometimes deliberately repeating slogans so that we begin to believe them. An Australian politician kept repeating, “No GST (Goods and Services Tax)! No GST!” Then, after millions of people had believed him, he changed his tune…

In Moses’ time there was no TV and in any case the spokesman who put across the leader’s words might have had better speaking technique than Moses, but in his day it was probably the content that made the difference.

Whether we today can train people to examine content rather than form is a major question.

Forgetting a Face

Legal systems need good judges. As far as Judaism is concerned, the definition of a good judge is as given in this week’s Torah portion (Deut. 1:16-18).


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