Devarim: A Torah Teaching through Time
By David Hartley Mark
Moses: Reader of Torah! You invoke my name every Shabbat, but no one can ever know me, truly. Was I a Desert Shepherd, Egyptian prince, God-sent Savior from Slavery, Commander-in-Chief of an Israelite Army, the First and Wisest Rabbi, or Chief of the Hebrew Prophets, both of those who preceded and those who followed me, the only mortal to speak with the Holy One, panim-el-panim, face-to-face? Or do I speak only through black dots on a page, silent white spaces between, or the light-flashes on a computer screen? Am I, finally, a riddle?
It is true: I may have been no model husband, or father. But history will bear me out: Abraham Lincoln’s family will suffer, because of his concerns with nation and conflict. William Blake will be a genius, but also a madman. Ludwig van Beethoven will suffer from Bipolar Disorder, alcoholism, stomach ailments, and migraines; his art will reflect them. Giants of the spirit will often have feet of clay. In your time, people of lowly caliber and lacking in personal trustworthiness or integrity may seek the highest offices in the land: therefore, do not judge me too harshly, you smug Moderns.
I did the best I could in this Book of Deuteronomy—to continue the Sacred Brit-Covenant between God and His People, going back to Abraham and Sarah; to begin the Aaronide Cult of Sacrifice which Amos and Hosea will change to Prayer. I negotiated with God, endlessly, to protect the hopeful but malcontented desert wanderers. Judaism—and who called it Judaism, ‘way back then?—became the first faith dedicated to Ethical Monotheism, despite its misogynistic faults. Yes, you may well call me feminist, for the sake of my poor, suffering sister, Miriam, and my devoted, yet unrewarded wife, Zipporah!
So: the question remains: did I write Deuteronomy, or not? Perhaps parts of it; perhaps—well, what does it matter? It has my name and spirit in it; isn’t that all that matters? Read my words then, and learn! The Book was lost, and then found by the later King Josiah; listen!
King Josiah (c. 621 BCE, Province of Judah, Southern Kingdom of Israel): I carried out a program of religious reforms while my kingdom—a province captive to the Northern Assyrian Empire, actually—was suffering from paganism. My Israelite people, eager to mimic their pagan neighbors, swarmed to the cults of Ba’al and Ashtoret, eating filthy food and practicing foul sacrifices to idols.
I, Josiah, was only eight years old when I became king, but, when I turned eighteen, I commanded the scribe Shaphan and the High Priest Hilkiah to explore the Holy Temple’s interior and direct its renovations. While exploring its inner chambers, Hilkiah discovered a Torah—the Book of Deuteronomy, actually—and gave it to Scribe Shaphan, who read it to me. The Book worried me—how sinful had my father- and grandfather-kings become, to allow so much idolatry in our Holy Land!
Immediately, we went to Huldah, the Prophet, who spoke to the Lord, and advised me about assembling the people before the Temple, where I might speak to them, reading from the Book of Deuteronomy.
“You must pledge to renew the National Covenant with God,” I intoned, “and follow the laws given in this Torah-scroll.” I, Josiah, ordered Hilkiah and all the Temple guards to remove the Baalim and Asherote, the male- and female-idols, from the Temple, and burn them in the fields.
“We must drive out the pagan priests,” I ordered, “and forbid the weaving of coverings for the Asherah-idols. There are to be no more sacred posts, or offerings to Molech or Phoebus Apollo.” The people rushed off to do my bidding, but it was a lengthy process: would God accept our repentance, and forgive me, King Josiah, and my people?
Later, the Pharaoh Neco went to battle against me and my ally and protector, Assyria; my Israelite army met the Egyptian host at the Euphrates River. Sadly, all of my radical and abrupt religious changes were apparently unsatisfactory to God, for I died in battle against the Pharaoh. So ended my life, I, King Josiah—
And what became of the Scroll of Deuteronomy? We have it still, of course, and begin its reading and study this Shabbat. It was not all dated to Josiah’s day; some of it is earlier, going back to King Hezekiah (II Kings 18; reigned 715-687 BCE), and who also mounted a similar reform. Individual verses of the book may also date back to the days of Moses.
I believe that Deuteronomy’s origins are less crucial than what impression we gain from reading it, how we regard its importance, and the lessons we take away from it. Moses passes away, and Joshua becomes the next leader—that teaches us that leaders come and go. We Jews, however, remain, as an Eternal People. Which is more important—our tribal identity as Jews, or our universal identity as human beings?
The answer must always be, “yes.”