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By Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom | Series: | Level:



Sefer D’varim is divided into three sections (just like Bamidbar – see our Siyyum on Sefer Bamidbar):

    A) Historical Recounting (Chapters 1-11)

    B) Mitzvot (Chapters 12-26)

    C) Covenant Ceremonies (27-33)

    (Chapter 34, describing Mosheh’s death, is a topic for a separate discussion)

Although we will focus our discussion on a few of the elements mentioned in the historical recitation/recounting (specifically those mentioned in the first three chapters; i.e. Parashat D’varim), we will also suggest, in broad strokes, some overarching themes of the entire Sefer – along with its purpose.



Near the beginning of our Parashah (1:13-17), Mosheh recounts the story of his delegating judges to handle the many complaints and disputes among the people.

[There is an anomaly in our practice worth pointing out here: When we read the Torah on Shabbat afternoon and on Monday and Thursday mornings, the general custom is to read the first “Aliyah” of the upcoming Shabbat morning Parashah. Only when that first Aliyah is too short to make three Aliyot (less than 10 verses), such as Parashat Nitzavim, or when it is too long (e.g. Ki Tissa), do we do otherwise.

During the week leading up to Shabbat Parashat D’varim, we read the first 11 verses, ending just before the verse which starts with the word Eikhah. These 11 verses are divided into 3 “mini”-Aliyot. On Shabbat morning, however, we end the first Aliyah after verse 10. This is done so that we don’t begin the next Aliyah with the word Eikhah; which, even though it doesn’t necessarily have a “tragic” implication here, carries the saddest associations for us – it is the banner word of Yirmiyah’s book of dirges, known as Eikhah or “Lamentations”. Since Parashat D’varim is always read on the Shabbat just prior to Tish’ah b’Av, we don’t want to begin an Aliyah with a word that has such sad and immediate associations – so we begin the Aliyah one verse “early”.]

After reminding the people that he had told them (almost 40 years ago) that they have become numerous and blessed by God – and blessing them that God should increase their numbers a thousand-fold – he notes that this burden was too much for him to bear. In response, he approached them, as follows:

Choose for each of your tribes Anashim (men) who are wise, discerning, and reputable to be your leaders.” You answered me, “Tov haDavar Asher Dibarta la’Asot (The plan you have proposed is a good one).” So I took the leaders of your tribes, wise and reputable Anashim, and installed them as leaders over you, commanders of thousands, commanders of hundreds, commanders of fifties, commanders of tens, and officials, throughout your tribes. I charged your judges at that time: “Give the members of your community a fair hearing, and judge rightly between one person and another, whether citizen or resident alien. You must not be partial in judging: hear out the small and the great alike; you shall not be intimidated by anyone, for the judgment is God’s. Any case that is too hard for you, bring to me, and I will hear it.” (1:14-17)

[Note that this story seems to be a blending of two distinct events: Yitro’s advice to Mosheh to delegate judicial responsibility (Sh’mot 18:19-26) and Mosheh’s complaint to God that the burden of the people is too great to bear (Bamidbar 11:11-15). In addition to the “blurring”, Yitro’s role is omitted here. Addressing this “slant” in historic retelling is beyond the scope of this shiur and will be dealt with in a future shiur.]

This narrative raises (at least) two questions:

A) Why is the mention of the delegation of judicial responsibility worthy of mention right at the beginning of Mosheh’s historical recounting? Wouldn’t it have been more reasonable to mention the Exodus, the Stand at Sinai or the Construction of the Mishkan at this point?

B) Why is Mosheh sharing his charge to the judges with the people? (“I charged your judges…”)

The same question may be asked in reference to a later verse in our Parashah:

Even with me Hashem was angry on your account, saying, “You also shall not enter there. Yehoshua bin Nun, your assistant, shall enter there; Oto Hazek (give him strength/encourage him), for he is the one who will secure Israel’s possession of it.” (1:37-38)

Why is Mosheh sharing God’s “personal” charge (to him regarding Yehoshua) with the people?



I would like to suggest an answer which will only satisfy our first problem – the very mention of the judges. It is predicated upon a methodological approach which we regularly utilize. The Torah will often use common language to create an association between two narratives (or areas of Halakhah). The result may be a newly discovered similarity (such as we found in our Siyyum on Sefer Bamidbar) – or a deliberate contrast (such as the Bil’am-Avraham association, mentioned in this year’s shiur on Parashat Balak).

We begin with an assumption that is fairly safe – that Mosheh was going to mention the story of the scouts (M’raglim) in this historic recitation. This is a safe assumption because that one event (solely, if not chiefly) is what caused the present situation – only now were we prepared to enter the Land, instead of having been there for nearly 39 years.

That being the case, Mosheh may be telling us about the judges in order to draw an “inverted parallel” with the disaster of the M’raglim. Note how he describes the genesis of the mission of the scouts (again, this telling is different than that in Parashat Sh’lach – see the note above):

I said to you, “You have reached the hill country of the Amorites, which Hashem our God is giving us. See, Hashem your God has given the land to you; go up, take possession, as Hashem, the God of your ancestors, has promised you; do not fear or be dismayed.” All of you came to me and said, “Let us send Anashim ahead of us to explore the land for us and bring back a report to us regarding the route by which we should go up and the cities we will come to.” vayiTav b’Einei haDavar (The plan seemed good to me), and I took from you twelve Anashim, one from each tribe. (1:20-23)

The association with the “judges” narrative is clear – the common Anashim is one connection, as well as the reaction (Mosheh’s in one case, the people’s in the other) – which includes the phrase Tov haDavar (albeit with some grammatical variation). Now that we see the association of these two stories, we can immediately spot the difference, as per this chart:


Whose Idea? – Mosheh – The People

Who Approved? – The People – Mosheh

Who Selected the Anashim? – Mosheh – The People

As we can see, the M’raglim incident, which led to a disaster of great proportions, was handled in the opposite manner of the appointment of judges (which was, from everything we know, a successful process). This teaches us a valuable lesson about leadership – one which was indispensable advice to the people as they were about to enter the Land and come under new leadership (Yehoshua).

Ideally, the leader actually leads – he inspires the people and directs them. Nevertheless, he cannot act without their approval and support – hence, even though Mosheh suggested the idea of the judges, the people’s approval was a necessary step in the success of this venture. Afterwards, however, it was Mosheh who selected the right people for the job.

When the opposite direction is taken, disaster is inevitable and imminent. In the story of the scouts, the people made the demand and Mosheh approved (but we get the sense that it was more of a “rubber stamp”, realizing that the people would rebel if he didn’t give in) – and then the people selected their representatives for the mission. (Look carefully at the difference between the beginning of v. 15 and the beginning of the second half of v. 23 – it will only be clear if you look in the Hebrew).

In other words, by telling us the story about the judges (in apposition to the scouts), Mosheh is teaching us about leadership. The leaders must be the ones who direct, with the support and approval (referendum) of the people – and they must execute their decisions. If, on the other hand, the people are leading the leader, who has no choice but to approve and leave the execution up to them – disaster is the assured result.

Valuable as this lesson is, we are still “stuck” with the second question – why Mosheh shared his charge to the judges (and God’s charge to him regarding Yehoshua) in this recounting.

In order to answer this, we need to ask a more general question about the first 11 chapters of D’varim.



As we noted, the first 11 chapters are devoted to a historical recounting of some of the events of the past 40 years – with a focus on the Stand at Sinai. This recounting is interspersed with Mussar – rebuke and warnings about the potential for “backsliding” waiting for the B’nei Yisra’el in the Land.

Why did Mosheh engage in this recounting? Didn’t the people already know what they had gone through?

The first answer which comes to mind – and which is valid – is that indeed this group had not experienced these events. Keep in mind that the generation which had left Egypt, stood at Sinai and constructed the Mishkan (and rejected the Land) had died out in the desert and Mosheh was addressing the next generation. This explains the recounting – but not the style of that recounting. If we look through the entire recitation, we note that it is entirely presented in the second person:

“All of you came to me…and I took from you twelve Anashim…” and so on. See, especially, the following citation:

But take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life; make them known to your children and your children’s children, how you once stood before Hashem your God at Horeb, when Hashem said to me, “Assemble the people for me, and I will let them hear my words, so that they may learn to fear me as long as they live on the earth, and may teach their children so”; (D’varim 4:9-10)

The entire stand at Sinai is presented to this generation as if they were there!

This strange (and technically inaccurate) recitation surely demands more explanation.



In summary, we have the following questions with which to contend:

    * Why did Mosheh mention the “judges” at the beginning of this historical recitation?

    * Why did Mosheh share his charge to the judges with the B’nei Yisra’el?

    * (Likewise) why did Mosheh share God’s charge to him regarding Yehoshua with the B’nei Yisra’el?

    * What is the purpose of this recitation, in which Mosheh recounts all of the events that happened to his audience’s parents – but presents it in the second person, without mentioning the previous generation?

    * What is the purpose of Sefer D’varim?

Before addressing these, we need a quick brush-up on the notion of “themes” within each Sefer of the Humash.



As we discussed in our introductory shiur to Sefer Bamidbar, each of the five Humashim of the Torah reflect our relationship with God through a different vehicle. Here is the relevant “clip” from that shiur (with some editing):


Unlike the division into chapters, which is a foreign “overlay” onto the Torah (generally credited to Stephen Langton, an English churchman, who created this division in 1205 CE), the division into five books is inherent in the text itself. Not only does every Sefer Torah contain four blank lines between each Sefer, but each begins and ends in a style that is appropriate for a beginning or ending (as the case may be); case in point is the end of Vayyikra, the beginning of D’varim etc.

Each of these books reflects our relationship with haKadosh Barukh Hu through a different perspective:


In his first comment on the Torah, Rashi asks the famous question in the name of R. Yitzchak : Why did the Torah begin with the story of Creation – it should have begun with the first Mitzvah given to the Jewish people? His answer gives us an insight into the nature of the entire book of B’resheet: By committing the Creation to writing, our “deed” to Eretz Yisra’el becomes affirmed. In the future (!), when the nations of the world will come to dispute our claim on Eretz Yisra’el, we will show them that the Land is not theirs – nor is it ours. The Land belongs to God (as demonstrated in the Creation narrative); He gave it to whom He favored and then took it from them to give it to us. B’resheet is the only book of the Torah which takes place in the Land; it is the description of our well-anchored past there and the development of the covenant with the Patriarchs which gives us title to the Land. The final statement of this book is Yoseph’s reminder to his brothers that one day, God will remember them and take them out of this land to bring them back to the land that He promised to the Avot. In summary, B’resheet is a description of our relationship with the Almighty through Eretz Yisra’el.


As we see through the rest of T’nakh – and in literature and liturgy until this day – all of Jewish history is viewed through the prism of the Egypt-Sinai- experience, known broadly as Y’tziat Mitzrayim. Whether the focus is on the oppression of slavery, the miracles of salvation, the Song of thanksgiving, the faithfulness of the desert experience, the stand at Sinai or the intimacy with the Divine realized in the Mishkan, the events of Sefer Sh’mot serve as the all-encompassing paradigm for Jewish history. In summary, Sh’mot is a description of our relationship with God through history.


As is easily evidenced, the entire focus of the book of Vayyikra is our relationship to God as it is realized through the vehicle of the Mishkan. Here, unlike in Sh’mot, the Mishkan is not an end in and of itself, rather it is that place of offering Korbanot, coming close to God – with all of the attendant restrictions and considerations. Vayyikra is, indeed, a description of our relationship with God through the Beit haMikdash/Mishkan.


Bamidbar is the description of our relationship with the Ribbono shel Olam through K’lal Yisra’el – the interactions of the Jewish people. That is why there is so much emphasis on our numbers (two full censuses), the placement of each tribe, the division of the Land – and the numbers lost through the plague at P’or. This also explains the inclusion of the interactions between the tribal leaders and Mosheh Rabbenu (especially at the end of the Sefer), and the dramatic challenges to Mosheh’s leadership.


Unlike the first four books, Sefer D’varim is not said in God’s “voice”; the voice of this book is Mosheh’s. God is presented in the “third person”.. From the introductory line: “These are the words that Mosheh spoke…” to the finale, the eulogy for Mosheh, D’varim is a book in which our Master and Teacher, Mosheh Rabbenu, takes center stage. D’varim is a description of our relationship with God through a Rebbi – through our association with tradition via our teachers.




The job of Sefer D’varim can best be understood through this light.

The original Divine plan was to take the B’nei Yisra’el out of Egypt and to bring them directly into Eretz Yisra’el. In other words, the generation of the Exodus (Dor Yotz’ei Mitzrayim) would be the same as the generation of the Conquest (Dor Ba’ei ha’Aretz). As a result of the tragedy of the M’raglim, this plan was subverted and these two events, Exodus and Conquest, were “spread” between two generations. Mosheh, then, had an awesome task – to tie these two generations together, such that the distance between Sinai and Tziyyon would be bridged.

This is where Mosheh “earned” the title by which he is forever known – Mosheh Rabbenu – “Mosheh, our Rebbi”. Indeed, the job of a Rebbi is more than instructive, even more than inspirational or exhortative. The Rebbi is the bridge with previous generations, taking us back to Sinai (along with taking us back to the Beit haMikdash, to Yavneh etc.). In simple terms, the Rebbi’s job is to turn the past into the present. [I recall experiencing this first-hand when participating in the shiur of Rav Soloveitchik zt”l, seeing the Tannaim, Amoraim and Rishonim all sitting around his table as he orchestrated their debates. It was a marvelous experience, one which he describes beautifully in “uVikkashtem Misham” (pp. 231-232).]

The first person to set out to do this job was Mosheh, as he turned the generation of the Conquest into the generation of the Exodus. Indeed, the Plains of Mo’av was the first “Beit Midrash” and Sefer D’varim the first “Shiur”. (See Abravanel’s resolution of the challenges to Divine authorship of D’varim [in the moving introduction to his commentary on D’varim], that Mosheh originally taught D’varim orally and then God commanded him to commit it to writing.)

How did Mosheh do it? One simple device which he utilized is one that became the staple of the Haggadah – talking about the past in the present and talking to the people as if they had experienced these events first-hand. In other words, by saying “You approached me…” etc., they were drawn in to the sense of “being there”.

[Note that Mosheh barely mentions any of the events which this generation “really” saw – the majority of the events mentioned belong to the previous generation].

Mosheh was indeed “Rabbenu” – to the second generation! He was the first to perform this function – a function which guaranteed the potential for the eternity of the Jewish people. If it can be done once, it can be replicated every time! If one generation can be “brought back” to Sinai, so can every subsequent generation.



This successful “education” project brought a terrifying danger in its wake – one to which the master teacher, Mosheh Rabbenu, was acutely aware. He was poised to bring them back to Sinai, to that great moment of Revelation – after which, he would ascend Har ha’Avarim (or Har N’vo) and die. Mosheh had already been told that that was he would die, when God instructed him to ascend that mountain (Bamidbar 27).

Mosheh remembered well what had happened the last time he had “disappeared” atop a mountain. When the B’nei Yisra’el had just experienced (in “real time”) the Revelation, Mosheh ascended the mountain to receive the rest of the Law (along with the tablets). When the people were concerned about Mosheh’s disappearance (remember – they did not know how long he was supposed to be on top of the mountain), they regressed to the idolatry of the golden calf.

How could Mosheh avoid the same pitfall? How could he insure that the B’nei Yisra’el would not achieve a “complete” return to Sinai, including the tragic aftermath of idolatry after his “one-way” ascension of the mountain?



Here is where the master teacher utilized his wonderful talent for education. In advance of retelling the people about their most glorious moments (Chs. 4-5, including the stand at Sinai and the Exodus), he instilled in them the understanding that he would not completely be leaving them. He told them about the two major functions which he held – leadership and instruction – and how he empowered others to continue his role. He immediately told them about the judges and how he charged them, such that even in his absence, there would be judges who would be an extension of Mosheh-as-instructor.

We now understand why Mosheh introduced the judges at the beginning of his historical recitation – to reassure the people (as they felt closer to their past) that his leadership would still be their guide as they conquered and settled the Land.

We also understand why Mosheh shared his charge to the judges: The people needed to hear for themselves about the close relationship he had with those judges, such that they were not just filling a position, but really continuing his role.

We can also understand why Mosheh shared God’s command to him vis-a-vis Yehoshua: Just as the people needed to hear about his connection with the judges, they needed to hear about how his “presence” would be felt through Yehoshua. The phrase Oto Hazek (give him strength/encourage him), said about Yehoshua, reminds us of the empowerment which is the purpose of the S’mikhah (laying on the hands), by which Mosheh Rabbenu transferred the mantle of leadership to Yehoshua. (See this year’s shiur on Parashat Vay’chi).



In section VI, I alluded to the difference between Sefer D’varim and the first four books. I’d like to share the observations of an old friend, Uzi Weingarten ([email protected]), as published in the insightful weekly “Judaic Seminar” (which can be accessed through Shamash):

That Deuteronomy is called “Moses’s book,” as opposed to the other four books of the Torah, is substantiated by comparing two passages in Nehemiah that describe public readings of the Torah. On each occasion, a mitzvah that had fallen into disuse was “found.” The first was the mitzvah of sitting in the sukkah during Sukkot, which appears only in Leviticus (23:42-43), and the second was the prohibition on an Ammonite or Moabite entering God’s community, which appears only in Deuteronomy (23:4-7).

There is a crucial difference in how the two readings are described. Concerning sukkah, the author tells us:

They found written in the Torah, that God commanded through Moses that the Israelites sit in sukkot… (Nehemiah 8:14).

Regarding who can enter God’s community, the author tells us:

On that day the Book of Moses was read to the people, and it was found written in it that an Ammonite or a Moabite should not enter God’s community forever. (ibid. 13:1).

So a clear distinction is made: Leviticus is part of “the Torah that God commanded through Moses,” and Deuteronomy is “the Book of Moses.” The people did not consider the latter any less authoritative, and act on both commandments immediately. But there is still a difference in the linking to a source.

Text Copyright © 2011 by Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom and The author is Educational Coordinator of the Jewish Studies Institute of the Yeshiva of Los Angeles.