I remember from my youth that as school let out the teachers would provide a suggested list of books to read during the summer break. While each of us may have a favorite author to catch up on, as a people we have a special book that grabs our attention at this time of year: the fifth book of the Torah, Devarim, Deuteronomy, in English.
Devarim is unique among the Five Books of Moses in that, while the first four provide history, accounts, stories, along with lessons and laws learned in the Wilderness over 40 years, this last book is different. Moses is addressing, in the last month of his life, the new generation that was raised in the wilderness. The reason there are two iterations (and by no means identical) of the Ten Commandments (more accurately the Ten Utterances) is that in Shemot (Exodus, in English) we hear them as they are presented originally to the people at Sinai, and in Devarim we hear Moses sharing his perspective on them to the new generation. The entire book of Devarim (meaning “Words”) consists of Moses’ last words, Farewell Address, to this new generation.
The uniqueness of this fifth book, in contrast to the first four, is how it both summarizes the core principles and values uncovered during the 40 years and represents a reiteration of the Covenant between God and the people of Israel as presented to them by Moses. As we learn from Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks in his commentary on the first portion of this book, what Moses presents is a structure of the Covenant akin to the kinds of treaties made in ancient times between kings and their subjects. What makes this treaty a first is that instead of mortals striking agreements with each other, with the subjects accepting the rule of a king in all its contractual details, you have the Power of the Universe striking a deal with an entire people. With Moses reiterating it for the new generation, you have echoes of processes by which treaties were set among ancient peoples with the inclusion of 6 aspects of the treaty, which you find in Moses’ address throughout this book. He begins with a preamble indicating this is a contract generated from God; he indicates the history and background of a relationship between God and Israel that leads to this treaty, i.e. the Covenant; he provides the substance of the Covenant, which is why we have the second iteration of the Ten Commandments coupled with the cornerstone of Jewish commitment in this treaty with God: the Shema and Veahavta, the expression of love for God. Next he indicates that the substance of this treaty will be first ceremonially set upon the stones of Mt. Eval and afterward placed and protected in the Ark of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle they built and which accompanied them during the wilderness years. Then, as in the template for ancient treaties, Moses indicates the sanctions and consequences for keeping the Covenant, or not doing so, blessings or curses that will accrue based on the success or failure of this commitment. And the last part of this expression of Covenant to the new generation is the calling upon the Witness of Heaven and Earth to its ratification in making a choice between Life and Good and Death and Bad, that we choose Life!
The ramification of entering into a Covenant between the Power of the Universe and each and every one of our people is that each individual and family bears the responsibility of learning and teaching this Covenant in order to be able to move it forward with the next generations. That is why telling the story of the Exodus is such a significant part of our Jewish celebratory life, that the children learn the story well enough to keep future generations engaged with it, and for subsequent generations to know that when we celebrate the Giving of Torah, the Shavuot holiday, we always have to make an active choice to receive it.
Moving through this month of August, we come upon the Hebrew month that prepares us for the Days of Awe: Elul. The letters in Hebrew spell “I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine!” In other words, in welcoming Elul a full month before the Days of Awe, we choose to reaffirm the Covenant, the partnership God gives us in each generation, so that we might dedicate ourselves to doing good and bringing blessing into this world as we prepare to enter a new year with renewed energy and commitment to do our part in making it a year of blessing and wellbeing for all.
So whatever other reading you are enjoying this summer, don’t overlook the longest standing best seller of all time! Our Bible, the Torah in particular, is filled with life affirming information and inspiration to take what we absorb in the quieter time of the year into the new cycle that awaits us, with renewed focus and purpose to make it a good and blessed new year!