This is the last volume of the Chumash. It is the record of the final will of our teacher Moshe (Moses).
The book begins in the final weeks of Moshe’s life, which was the Jews’ fortieth year in the desert, just before their entry into the land of Israel. The book takes the form of a leader giving a loving, yet sometimes fiery farewell speech to his people. Moshe pleads, reasons, and preaches, using every tool imaginable to convince us to stick to the commandments of the Torah.
The speech teaches us how fragile a human being’s loyalty can be how much effort is needed to keep to any path… even a path chosen and commanded by G-d Himself.
“And guard yourselves lest you should forget the L-rd your G-d, so as not to keep His commandments…” (chapter 8, verse 11).
It is a theme repeated over and over again in Devarim: watch yourselves very carefully, lest you should slip; lest you should fail to keep even the most obvious of commandments.
But it also shows us the intense love Moshe must have had for us… and the respect and awe we had for him. For only someone who loves like a father will make such an effort to chastise his child, and only for something which must have been very important. And only a loving nation would quietly listen to and try to absorb the rebuke. Great men have been killed or imprisoned for saying things far less insulting than: “And in this matter you didn’t believe in the L-rd your G-d.” (chapter 1, 32)
“And also with me the L-rd became angry because of you.” (chapter 1, 37)
“And you should know that it was not in your merit that the L-rd your G-d gave you this good land to inherit, for you are a stiff necked people Remember and do not forget that you provoked the L-rd your G-d to anger in the wilderness, from the day that you left the land of Egypt until you came to this place, you have been rebellious with the L-rd.” (chapter 9, 6 7)
Devarim is also called “Mishne Torah” literally translated as the “repetition of the Torah.” Although there are 199 new commandments (Mitzvos) counted in Devarim, there are many passages that seem only to repeat ideas and Mitzvos mentioned before in the Chumash. The entire giving of the Torah and G-d’s proclaiming to us the ten commandments is also repeated here (chapter 5), seemingly without purpose (as though we had forgotten since the last time)!
The truth is though, that according to Jewish tradition, there isn’t an extra word, letter or vowel in the entire Tanach. Even those passages containing nothing more than lists of names contain storehouses of information (see the Gemara Pesachim 62b). Close examination of the book of Devarim (especially with the classical commentators and with the many sources from the oral Torah) will reveal whole new dimensions to the Mitzvos we thought we already knew. There’s nothing extra there either.
Don’t think it will all come easily. The Torah is one of those things that we are told is acquired only through suffering and hard work. Even for seasoned scholars there are passages that take time to understand and categorize. But if one works at it hard enough, somewhere, somehow, a reason will be found for every (apparently) extra word.
How was the Word of G-d transmitted to us? How do we know that the “transmitter” didn’t make it up? Why can’t we add or take away parts…? The Chumash ends with words that place the whole Torah in context.
“There never arose a prophet in Israel like Moshe who knew G-d face to face (There was never such a prophet who could perform signs like) all the signs and wonders that G-d sent him to do in the land of Egypt to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all of his land And (never such a prophet with such influence as with) the strong hand and to the great fear that Moshe made in the eyes of all Israel.”
Who was it that transmitted the Torah to us? Moshe, the prophet who was closer to G-d than any other human being. Why can’t anyone change the Torah? Because no one can ever reach Moshe’s level of prophecy, therefore, we could have no reason to believe any new version over that of the original. Why should we believe Moshe? Because he did all these things, all the miracles and signs. He did them, not in private, but in the eyes of all of Israel! The whole nation saw it. They didn’t just hear about it — they saw it. And then they taught what they had seen to their children…