DEUTERONOMY AS METAPHOR
The book of D’varim (Deuteronomy) can be looked upon as a metaphor for personal growth. Let’s start with a look at Moses at the burning bush in Exodus, chapter 3. Moses has, rather impetuously, killed an Egyptian taskmaster and had to flee to Midian. Now he is tending his father-in-law’s sheep in the wilderness near Mt Horeb and sees a bush that is aflame but not being consumed. God speaks to him from the bush and tells him that he must return to Egypt, confront Pharoah and free the Israelite people from slavery. Moses, instead of accepting this commission from God with well-deserved pride at having been chosen, demurs. He presents God with a string of excuses which pretty much are variations on “I am not worthy”. He concludes by pointing out, in Exodus 4:10, “I am not a man of words… I am slow of speech and slow of tongue”. Of course, God does not relent and Moses accepts the commission and leads the people out of Egypt and for forty years on the wilderness.
Fast-forward forty years. The book of Deuteronomy begins “these are the words that Moses addressed to Israel…”. Moses now launches on a series of eloquent prose and poetry that takes up one-fifth of the Torah. Moses has not only become a man of words, but also a great leader.
Moses has led Israel across the Sea of Reeds, to Sinai and through the wilderness. He has dealt with rebellion and complaining. He has led military conquests. He has developed from a reluctant and hesitant leader, unsure of himself and his adequacy to the task, to a confident and assertive commander. He has shown love for his people even in the face of their unfaithful ness. In the aftermath of the great sin of the golden calf, when God wanted to destroy the people, Moses intervened on their behalf, reminding God that the Lord is patient, forbearing and forgiving. These are traits which, by journey’s end Moses has acquired himself, though, of course, to a far lesser extent. But his confidence is tempered, always, by humility. He is open to the possibility that the Law as he has taught it to Israel might need re-understanding and revision as in the case of the daughters of Tzlofchad in Numbers. In the course of the forty years Moses has grown as a leader. He has learned and taught his flock lessons about morality. He has learned and transmitted lessons consisting of the kinds of rules that are needed to build and maintain a functioning civil society. Has learned and taught the lessons of devotion, loyalty and ritual. He has paid attention and learned well (from a Great Teacher) and, as evidenced by the reverence he has commanded through the ages,nthus teaching the importance of studying these lessons.
Moses’ flock, B’nai Yisrael have grown, too. They (we) have gone from a ragtag mob of recently freed slaves, still carrying a slave mentality, to a unified nation, firm in their dedication to God and ready to enter the land promised to their ancestors. They have reached the end of a bumpy and uneven road, uneven psychologically, spiritually and physically, from Sinai to the banks of the Jordan. They have gone from “na’aseh v’nishma (we will do and we will learn) to having enough understanding to raise reasonable questions, again, the daughters of Tzlofchad and the men for whom Pesach Sheni was established (Number 9:13-14). They are prepared and willing to go forward and establish a nation in Cana’an. That is a truly impressive transformation.
Indeed, Moses taught a lot during these last discourses. Of the 613 mitzvot in the Torah around 200, in Moses own words appear in D’varim. It includes the restatement of the “Ten Utterances” at Sinai. It includes what we say twice daily as the first two paragraphs of the Shema. There is so much more including countless verses that have become part of our prayer liturgy. So, Moses has become not only a student who transmits and shares what he has learned. Moses appears to become the actual author of, perhaps, God-given or inspired law
But Moses is not perfect. He is still capable of getting angry and acting impulsively as he did when he struck the rock at Meribah instead of speaking to it as he was instructed by God. He shows an angry and bitter side he spends much of the book of Deuteronomy, his farewell song, carping on the rebellions and sins and acts of faithfulness he has had to put up with. He spends over fifty verses in chapter 28 calling down, in graphic detail, all manner of evils and curses upon the people if they are disobedient and faithless to God. Even his so-called blessing at the very end is tinged with some bitterness.
But that is part of the point. It is what makes Moses real and accessible. It teaches us that you don’t have to be perfect to be good. You really just need to do the best you can and not give up on yourself. Moses was, according to our tradition, an eighty-year-old shepherd when God spoke to him at the bush. The lesson is, as I said in the beginning, one of personal growth. If Moses can transform and learn at the age of eighty, then it is neither too late, nor hopelessly difficult for any of us. If a band of escaped slaves can learn the lessons to be taught and transform themselves into a real nation we too can learn and improve. We all have untapped potential We just need to invest the time and effort to grow into it. This, I believe is one of the great lessons of the Torah as a whole and of Deuteronomy, in particular.