"These are the words that Moses spoke unto all Israel on the other side of the Jordan, in the Wilderness, in Arevah, opposite Suf, between Paran and Tophel, and Lavan, and Hazeroth, and Di-Zahav.” -Deut. 1:1
In the 1960’s, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel would read galleys of his books to those who attended his 7:30am lectures at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Heschel was an exquisite writer, undoubtedly. Moreover, Heschel’s involvement in civil rights, the Vietnam War, and Vatican II certainly made him an exciting personality. Yet, as this Rabbi (with his Old World accent) intoned chapter after chapter from his latest work, it was not uncommon for many of his students to drift asleep.
This week we begin the book of Deuteronomy—the last of the Five Books of Moses. There is a tradition that Moses taught the entire book of Deuteronomy on a single day—namely, the day of his death. This view may have been popularized by an early Medieval Jewish sect, the Karaites. (See Ibn Ezra 1:2) But for whatever reason, the tradition caught on. A thousand years later, I was taught as much in day-school.
As endearing as the legend is, it contains not a few problems. The Book of Deuteronomy comprises over a hundred laws—seventy of which appear nowhere else in the Torah. It would be hard to imagine Moses reading these laws straight through, word for word, out of a scroll. How did he keep everyone’s attention? What if a hand shot up with a query? Did the entire congregation stop for discussion?
The 19th century commentator, the Netziv, presents a novel alternative to this quandary. He suggests that after Israel’s successful conquests along the Plains of Moab, the Children of Israel no longer camped altogether as they had done throughout their journeys in the Wilderness. Instead, they began to spread out over many miles and settle these newly conquered areas. Thus it was necessary for Moses to travel from place to place and deliver his words on many occasions. “He gathered the people once in the Wilderness, once in Arevah, once opposite Suf, once between Paran and Tophel, once in Lavan, once in Hazeroth, and once in Di-Zahav.” Moreover, at each gathering “he would speak of a different subject from this book.”(Ha’Emek Davar - Deut. 1:1)
Moses was aware that the mind can only absorb so much, so he taught accordingly, one portion of the book at a time. He also knew there is nothing like personal attention. Despite his age and the respect owed to him, the congregation did not travel to Moses, rather he went forth to each congregation. It might have sufficed to send forth copies of Deuteronomy to outlying communities, but Moses made it so his words would be heard directly from his lips.
Each passing day, we hear less and less from people’s lips, and more and more from recordings and copies. We receive bulk mail, mass bulletins, countless evites and invitations via the internet or post. We watch recorded broadcasts and programs on the web or on television. We choose the phone over the meeting, and then choose email over the phone.
It is rather fitting to consider the behavior of Moses—Moses who traveled to each camp, who spoke his last words face-to-face with each group, who may have also repeated himself a few times, just so others could hear that “these are the words” uttered from his lips.