When you’re at a fireworks show, and it ends, do you immediately leave? No, you stare at the sky for a few more moments, watching the trailing ends of the pieces of the explosions dissipate and fall. When you’re at a sports game, and your team wins, at the end of the game, do you immediately turn around and leave (assuming you didn’t bug out early to beat the traffic)? No, you watch the field for a few more moments, and then you leave, hoping a player or two will come out and wave to the crowd. When you’re at a concert, and the music ends, do you pick up and walk away? No, you applaud, and you hope that the performer will come back for a curtain call, or maybe, if you’re lucky, a virtuoso encore.
Part of what your mind is doing in these situations is making sure that what you thought you saw is real. The reason we go to watch things like fireworks and sports and concerts is that they impress us with feats that are beyond the abilities of ordinary folks and ordinary events. They are experiences that transcends what is an ordinary part of our lives.
Turn back the clock thousands of years. The most important, most impressive fireworks display, sports match, concert in history is happening at Har Sinai: headlined by an appearance of none other than the one, the only God. Fire and thunder and the blast of trumpets and God speaking out of the clouds surrounding the mountain. Now, if you had been standing with Am Yisra’el—the Israelite people—there, when the spectacle was finally over, would you have ever wanted to leave?
Sefer Devarim, the book of Deuteronomy, which we start this Shabbat, begins with exactly this situation. The awe-inspiring theophany is over, and God finally calls it closing time: “God spoke to us at Ḥoreb, saying: Long enough you have been dwelling at this mountain. Turn away, and take your journey” (1:6–7), going through all these different places, until you finally get to the promised land.
We didn’t want to leave. Indeed, how could we have? What the Torah is saying here is: “You’ve been here long enough; it’s time to move on to what’s next.” Which means wandering through the desert for forty years, followed by entry into an uncertain land, war, and the establishment of a stable, society and government.
Rabbinic tradition refers to Sefer Devarim as mishneh Torah, which means something like “the restatement of the Law” or “the recapitulation of the Torah”. The English name for Devarim, “Deuteronomy”, derives from the Greek version of this name as well: deutero- “second” + nomos “law”. Biblical scholarship has been fairly clear for several centuries that this book was not composed by the same minds that wrote the first four books of the Torah, but by a completely different person or school of people. We refer to the composer or composers of Deuteronomy as D. D is also almost certainly responsible for the composition and redaction of the Book of Joshua as well, making it common in scholarly circles to refer not to the Pentateuch but to the Tetrateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers) and the Hexateuch (the Tetrateuch but including Deuteronomy and Joshua).
Sefer Devarim is structured as Moshe’s farewell oration to Am Yisra’el: Moshe is nearing the end of his days, and he recapitulates the story of the people’s journeys through the wilderness. But this speech, somewhat remarkably, does not start with the story of the revelation at Sinai, but of what happens immediately after that. The first thing Moses says is “God says: You’ve been here long enough, now start going.” Then, for the rest of the parashah, this week’s Torah portion, we get the story of the spies sent to check out the land and long summaries of several battles and wars the Israelites fought against other tribes. This parashah has a military focus, plain and simple. We don’t even get to the recapitulation of the Aseret Ha-Dib’rot, the Ten Statements given during the theophany at Sinai, until next week’s parashah. What does this mean?
The Lubavitcher Rebbe answers this question by returning to the theme with which we began. He asks what the Torah means when God instructs the Israelites to leave the mountain which they have stayed “too long” at. “In our lives,” he says, “we also have moments, days or years of revelation, times when we learn and grow and are enriched. But the purpose must always be to move on, move away, and carry the enlightenment and enrichment to someplace else—some corner of creation that awaits redemption.”
The journey may not necessarily be the reward, but it can be as important as what came before it and what came after. Sefer Devarim is, at its core, about the transition of the Israelite people from a state of unreadiness to one of readiness: readiness to enter the land, to form a civilization, to behave in a way governed by law intended for goodness. Too long, God reminds us, have we lingered at the mountain; the time has come for us to take steps away from it and grow.
We are currently in the midst of the Nine Days before Tisha B’Av, the fast day when we commemorate the destruction of the Beit Ha-Mik’dash, the Temple in Jerusalem two and a half thousand years ago. Jewish tradition teaches us that the Beit Ha-Mik’dash was destroyed because of sin’at ḥinam, baseless hatred. Right now, with the war and destruction going on in Gaza and Israel, it seems especially appropriate to recall the seductive and destructive power of baseless hatred. Too long have we lingered at the mountain of complacency, in a state of spiritual and moral unreadiness. Let us take this lesson to heart and take a step away from that mountain, to renew our spiritual growth on the journey towards liberation and peace.